Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category
Matthew Stillman in conversation with Stephen Jenkinson and Gregory Hoskins on the road during the 2018 Nights of Grief & Mystery Tour.
Matthew Stillman (MS): So we are sitting here in Kripalu on our way to Turners Falls for the next show. You both have traveled from Winnipeg all the way west across Canada. You have been in all three continental time zones, traveled untold thousands of miles to get here. And you have done the majority of the shows that are going to be on the tour.
And the tour has been planned just about a year at this point.
Stephen Jenkinson (SJ): Wow, is it that long?
MS: So I might ask, based on where we are in the tour, and where we are in the year, what is your understanding of what has happened up to this point?
SJ: There’s a lot of strata. One thing is what has happened in the shows, what has happened to the show, what does the audience tell you as time is going on, what happens to them.
One thing is we went to the States after Canada and that changed things, as I knew it would, because the Americans have consistently been a more audibly responsive audience than in Canada. That just changes because you cross the border. Not only that but the kind of political – maybe that is not even a broad enough word – the kind of existential political melee that we dropped into is palpably different the nanosecond we went across the border.
I think that is there. I think it shows up without anybody referring to it, although I very subtly referred to it maybe twice in the whole two and a half hours just to acknowledge it and no more. For me it has turned into something, and it is not something I knew at the beginning.
There is a band where there wasn’t a band. There were people organized around some ideas and rehearsal time, but a band has happened somewhere along the way, probably after the first four shows or something like that. I could feel behind me a kind of momentum that could be called upon, not by me but by the people who were in its sway. That has definitely happened.
Not only that but I have seen the range and the scale of the enterprise take on a substance that is its own. It has a sort of snake oil tent show revival aspect to it that wasn’t there once upon a time. I don’t mean that in a trivial way. It is a genuine unapologetic conjuring as well as crafting.
I think what has happened is the show itself as a living thing begins to ask something of the audience: How do you propose to live, given this? If you are going to be dead soon – something we assure people about at the end of the night – what does this ask of you? Now that I think of it, that is how this evening begins, too: “Welcome to this cosmic constant of ours.” What does that mean?
Well, the word cosmic induces slack mindedness I think. As soon as you hear the words ‘cosmic constant’, the contemporary mind can go blank with reassurance. Nice alliteration, yes, but what are we talking about there? God, which is our frailties and endings: that’s the cosmic constant. And then that sequence of welcomings, at the beginning. Somewhere along the way I think all of those things that I intoned in the overture – what are we calling it?
Gregory Hoskins (GH): Invocation.
SJ: Invocation – they seem to come to pass – or they come to call. That is better. I think they come to call. “How shall it be now that the call and the summons and the plea has gone out? How shall it be?” The next two and a half hours answers it, and it is not entirely the audience’s decision as to how shall it be. I think these things have been attended to.
That is what I mean by ‘substance’. So when I was imagining it, when we first talked about this between Calgary and Edmonton, I was thinking about how is this not theatre. It is theatrical. It is musical. It is poetic. It is mythological. It is all those things as adjectives, but how is it not those things as nouns? The answer I came up with very tangentially a few weeks ago (is that all it is? A few weeks ago, a month ago?) Was that it was pre-theater.
MS: Yes, we spoke about this in Arizona.
SJ: Yes it is theatrical, but it is pre-theatre though. I think things theatrical predated theatre. Theatre became the atrophy of theatricality. It became a kind of ossification of it. It struck me when we first started talking about it. I wasn’t struggling to find adjectives. I didn’t really…
I don’t think I have ever been asked in any of these interviews: “What the hell is this?” People ask you casually. But in the formal setting like an interview or anything, I don’t think I have ever been asked, now that I consider it. So I asked myself what it was. And I could never settle on a conventional iteration of it. Attributes, but not its soul. But it hit me that the reason that I couldn’t find it right away was because I was looking to the current available iterations of ‘theater’ … which is a fairly high attribution to grant to your little enterprise anyway.
I appreciate the word, but I think it has real limitations, because of the audience problem. Or, to say it another way, because theatre requires the audience. It enforces an audience for the most part. And this thing of ours doesn’t seem to. This thing seems to thwart the possibility of witnessing or attending to it at a distance. When you get the occasional gnarling, gnashing complaint about sound from one guy, I think that is what an audience does. The guy who objects to my translation of Amen, and then writes to comment on that only,for example: That is an audience. An audience tends to sit in adjudication of things.
But no one who was ever in on a ritual would ever adjudicate the relative merits of how the ritual was done, for fear of botching desperately the ritual and everything that is at stake because of it. I think that is the zone we are in. I don’t think it has to be declared for it to be so, but “It is better that if we make many a thing hangs in the rafters and hangs in the balance.” That is a very still couple of minutes in the proceedings: “As if how we are with each other is how the lords of chance will be with us.”
And then I proceed accordingly. That is not an introduction. That is an induction. I think the audience disappears as a cross-armed adjudicating remote control event. And that is in the contemporary sense of the term. It is not theatre. It is ritualistic.
MS: It might be called dramatic, which is much more alive and tender and needs to be taken care of in a different way than theatre does. Theatre seems to have that oppositional listening quality. It has that structure because of the times. Gregory, what is your understanding of where you are in the proceedings or where we all are in the proceedings, having heard all this?
GH: I think Stephen and I have different a experience of things, as I listen to him. It’s not distinctly different, but I think he is much more attached to the front end, and I am in the wake. Organizationally I was out front, but in the actual doing of the thing I am in the wake. A wake usually fans out. Actually, physically, the band has gone from being on the side to being spread out. If you looked at it from above, it would actually look more like a wake actually with Stephen pretty much dead centre and then the band fanned out behind him.
That is where I am sort of being pulled along. I am also not talking to the people after the night. I am not getting – I am not seeing the heartbeat after the thing. What does that mean? It means that I am part of the machinery in a way that is comfortable for me, new for me, and it doesn’t really give me a perspective on the whole thing.
It really doesn’t. We always ask Stephen: “How is the book line?” It is kind of code for: “How did we do?” We can’t count on the responses, because during the night we are all contending with the fact that there might not be responses or they might, as they often do, diminish through the night. We have talked about it before, the diminishing applause as we go along, with the kind of wearied applause. At the end Stephen says something like: “This will never end.” It is a lot like dying at that point.
And of course it is like dying in a lot of ways, but in one way it is going to end, before you want it to. And then there is that weird, whether it is prodded or not, ending where we are giving ourselves a gift and we get all funky, and yet we kind of cut to the quick of the entire night, at least the dying part of the night. We are conscious that it is not all about death. It is not all about the act of dying. But it is about endings, even the stuff that comes from the new book, especially coming into America, where the feeling of ending is all over the place.
The fact that nobody talks about it like that is weird and amplifies the fact. So we go in talking about endings of a specific kind. Yet anything from the new book is also touching on the same thing, and then we get to the end of the evening and we are funking out and it is fun. These are times when the crowd has been on its feet, at the end.
It is a bit of … There’s a great line that came from I don’t know which show it was, but it was recorded, and so I was listening to it. Stephen is just in the midst of this thing and he is something else. I think the mic is off the clip and he is back and forth. He says, “I was waiting for a sign, and I can make a sign out of anything.” That is the time when the tent goes up and we are in a very true but very, well, one might say ‘theatricality’ at that point.
One could say it is the release in the ritual. Then they are up on their feet and we are thrashing away on an ending, and I feel like a 12 year old playing in a garage band. And Adam is not sure he is going to execute whatever fill he thinks in his head. And we all look like 12 years old. That is what I think.
And we end. The only thing I am clear about is for some moments we are all unclear as to what just happened. What was that two and a half hours? Because we find ourselves on our feet. We find ourselves in that same position that people find themselves in at the end of school plays and the end of a Broadway show and at the end of a concert.
MS: How did that happen?
GH: Well, people are on their feet and they are clapping. It is a kind of agreed upon signature move. “This is what we do. If you do this, we will do this.” But there is rarely an encore call. In our culture an encore is – well, it is a French word, again. Encore: Again, again. But who would want to subject themselves to what just happened again?
So there is not going to be that. Even after we played in New York, we were walking down the street back to the hotel, we were walking by and somebody yelled the words Avanti – some Italian declaration of something. I spun around and there were two women who were at the show. They were applauding us and doing this Italian thing.
That kind of praise, the encore in our culture, of course, has become: “Play the song that you didn’t play, that you kept from the set.” That is the automatic response. I found myself at the end of it with those people not knowing what just happened because I am in the wake, and Stephen is at the prow, and they are at the water. So everybody is having a different experience. Everybody has a different role. We are not all in one room having the same experience, not in this thing.
I know on the stage that Stephen and I are not having the same experience. We are not fulfilling the same functions. We are two different parts of a moving thing. I am pretty linear with my metaphors, so if it is a wake and Stephen is at the prow and I am in the wake, then they are the water. Is there another version of that?
SJ: The Titanic.
GH: Cool. That was New York. No, totally kidding.
New York was triumphant. I am still on that. For me … I have a pretty good self-bullshit detector. In making music, writing songs, making records, it is kind of the one place I can’t lie. I can lie everywhere else. I can lie to other people. It is not really great to know about me, but I can’t really do that. It is like a sacred ground. I have made it that way for myself, so that there is just one place I have to be everything that I am.
So we go to New York, and day after day after day I cannot help but I am feeling this triumphant thing. In this thing we triumphed. I think I wrote in the letter to you that we triumphed because actually the gig triumphed over us and how we operated within that was our triumph. I felt like something important happened to us as a duo to be honest. There is the band and then there is the duo as it were.
MS: So in some ways perhaps that triumphant quality might not have been able to emerge if it wasn’t for all the cooking over the last parts of the tour and last parts of the year. If the tour as a whole, the Grief & Mystery Tour, is a material or a substance that you were speaking of that is kind of a live thing, it is has been the working of that clay or steel or plasma that allowed you to be able to deal with the distortion, for lack of a better word, of what happened in New York, because of the skills you honed with that pulsing, magnetic, alive, dangerous, volatile material, and knowing something about how to be up close and how far away to be and when to wield it.
GH: When the wheels come off like that you are not in control of anything. For us, it is not like we have been doing this for 50 years together. So when the wheels come off like that, we are vulnerable, completely. What are we going to do? What do we do? I don’t know the answers. What do we do?
But even just the panic of turning speakers around and switching microphones, and Lisa in the melee comes up to me and says, “You should switch your microphone with the other one.” I can’t go find the box and get the microphone, stick it in the clip, nah, I’ll just use this. And of course we go on and I realize, I will just use Stephen’s mike, the mike that works, but my guitar lead wouldn’t reach. I couldn’t. I couldn’t get up to there. So you are just vulnerable.
It is a vulnerable thing. I think the gigs we did before didn’t really test us that way, but you become the thing that ended up – at that point you are just an artist. You are just an artist. This is the thing that I recognized in Stephen. I have always seen – that is what I have seen, is the artist, the pure artist. I know he is lots of other things to other people.
SJ: I was completely heartbroken. That’s is the best way for me to describe how I was through the whole two and a half hours in the New York show. One of the reasons, I remember very acutely now … When the night was interrupted by a few unhappy audience members who couldn’t hear too well, I wondered: “Where I am to rejoin that ruptured thing? Where am I to do it?” Because this is how – I don’t like the word organic – but this is how … Okay, it’s anatomical. The night is for me a conjuring of the architecture of a living body. I have started, you see. And the call is this: “You can’t do that again. You can’t do that again. It has nothing to do with whether you heard me. It is a ritual. You can’t ‘start again, from the top’.
MS: It is like the crowning of a birth. You can’t do that part again.
Stephen: You can’t push back and say: “Nobody is quite ready. Let’s get the duct tape out and tape everything up until we fix the sound.” It was absolutely horrific to me, in the sense of transgressive, not that I didn’t – I’m not saying I felt the audience was transgressed upon, because I don’t think they were. Let’s just be very candid and say that nobody benefited from that. It was a horrendous thing but there were no beneficiaries of it. In that sense there is no blame. None of that thing.
I think I said to you when the people stormed out – and a good number of them stormed out – that thankfully I was not there to catch that. I had enough to deal with. They reported that these people’s principle grievance was that they were amongst the first to buy the tickets. They bought so many tickets and they bought them so long ago, and it cost so much for parking.
I thought to myself when I was told that later that night or the next day: “If you were that keen on it, what is the measure of it, tonight, that you cared that much about being there, that you were the first gone when trouble came, when the thing was compromised, that you were the first one off the boat? That is the way it struck me. I don’t say that with any malice. I am just saying that, to me, this is a living thing. We need all the allies, all the midwives we can get. Because that is what a ritual is:
There is no audience. And those people who left, they withdrew from the deal, if you will, from the alliance, by re-invoking their rights as an audience to be satisfied.
Matthew: As consumers.
Stephen: As consumers, yes. And it really compromised – not us up there, as hard as it was – the thing that we were trying to breathe over. That is what was compromised. That is what I mean by: How do I start again? I was in four or five minutes into the nurse story. I don’t even like to talk about it like that, but I was there, and then all of a sudden there is that woman in the lights and she is yelling at me that it is no good and all of that … Which is perfectly fine, to bring it to our attention, absolutely.
But what is at stake though? Your ticket’s worth? The value of the money that you laid down for it? Is that what is at stake? That was the hardest part to reconstitute in those few minutes when I was trying to figure out: To whom I owe what? As I think about it tonight, the parallel is to the story I tell on the Grief & Mystery CD, about this dying pilot, where he is laying there and he is clearly weeks away from his death.
His wife, who is in perfect health, sits behind him, and their three year old child is playing with the cars in the kitchen behind. And he asks me: “Am I dying?” And in this moment I have to decide: To whom do I owe what allegiance? That was that moment in New York just a few nights ago. To whom do I owe what the best part of me could possibly manage at a time like this?
In the case of the story, I owed the dying man the most relentless candour that he deserved, to give him a chance to occupy entirely the moment that he was in, and not to work up to it, and not to imagine he had weeks more of preparatory time and more blood tests and the whole thing. The parallel is that when I had to re-enter the night and the story we’d already begun, I was trying to figure out how I would plead for this thing to come back to life and not be an artifice.
How can I say the Invocation again? I kind of knew where I was. Because now it is a set piece, if I do that. I am no scientist but I can imagine when they are doing scientific experiments and there is a chemical chain that begins, and you can’t back it up. Like you said with a birth, you can’t back it up and start again. I couldn’t start again. So it was very, very – the challenge was so acute. I was in a world – a sea – of sorrow the entire night. Not regret. Just a sense that we were compromised by the least metabolic aspect of what we do: the sound through the speakers. It is the least alchemical aspect upon which the whole show depends, to be legible beyond six or eight rows from the front.
It is an amazing back and forth there. I don’t say that the sound is any less vital. I am only saying that it is the least, the most synthetic proposition of the entire enterprise. It would be like the stage collapsing when you are trying to ritualize. It doesn’t mean that the monkeys aren’t in the architecture. Somebody is pulling on the wires. Because that is what I think happened, frankly.
The thing that went on there went way beyond whoever was at the sound dials and the shape of the dome of the room. Looking beyond all of that, surely there’ve been big shows that have been very audible in that building before that night. No, we have been calling those Old Worthies who are very infrequently called upon I think in the North American context. You never know …
You try to give them a place right away that they can occupy. I am not saying that we did anything wrong that made that happen at the level of performing the ritual. But the volatility of it looks like that too. That can be the other half of the crowd being on their feet at the end of the night, the part you would really wish for.
Nobody would wish for this, but, man, I think I said gremlins at one point in the night. That is the part that was heartbreaking, but not regretful. If that distinction means anything to anybody.
GH: Well, it does because, we call this a show even though we don’t really want to call it a show. We fist bumped on the way out into the room in New York because we are in New York. We are playing New York. We played in Los Angeles. There is one part of this whole thing that kind of lives in that world that you are just a kid from Scarborough and I am a kid from Newmarket. Look at where we are. This is something we say to each other, to remind ourselves how lucky we are, how unlikely this all is.
But if there were monkeys in the architecture, and let’s say there were, what it led to is this sorrow drenched thing. As you are saying that, I’m thinking of the people who are now witnessing not just another iteration where we are on a dark road heading out of town, because that is what we do every night. It is hard. It is hard to…
Where is it? Sometimes you get stopped on the road, and you have to go back or you drop something. Something happens. You can go back a little bit, which is what we did, and then we kept going. But it is a different journey now.
So there is now this sorrow that wasn’t there before, maybe wouldn’t have been there, and maybe that is where my sense of the word that I will keep coming back to is. That is where the triumph came in.
I have fallen apart under much less stressful situations.I have fallen completely apart. There is a point that I keep referencing: Well this sounds like we sort of sewed it together. This stuff is going. We are there. We are there with everybody. There’s the boat, the prow, the people. We still have our light.
The light is shrinking, expanding on you, on me, a third time. I come up to sing. No light moves. There in my mind I say: This is just unprofessional. That’s a line that just got crossed. Now we are an unprofessional show. At the same time I knew that Matthew left the light because he had to attend to the troubles of the evening. I knew.
I knew. I just kept singing. There was no problem. And then before the light came onto my face, I realized I was smiling. And it is the first time I have sung and smiled. The smile wasn’t crazy. It was – that was the beginning of the triumphant feeling.
It was the feeling of ‘I am not dead’. I will be dead soon. But I am not dead now. And nor am I yelling into the storm. I am in it. I was listening to the band. We had turned out the monitors. You were just like waves crashing on a rock. I wouldn’t know where you were or what you were saying.
We were singing into that. There was no way to know. Everybody was kind of depending on what they knew and, more than that, who they were. And nobody on the stage bailed. Remember in the Gold Coast in Australia, that audience? And I said to you after that show: “I apologize, because I bailed.” I just looked at my feet the entire night, because I couldn’t hack that awful place.
But that wasn’t it. It was kind of more crucible-like for me. Your sorrow, you are speaking of your sorrow. That still makes it a crucible for me. It still makes it a prime ingredient.
MS: And if you are speaking of it as a crucible, this particular experience in New York, and in the context of the entire tour, the crucible has to be made of a material sturdy enough that it won’t melt in the presence of that plasma which is again a completely volatile material. It can destroy as well as it can cut artfully, or cook. Although, who cooks with plasma? Probably nobody.
SJ: Food Network – somebody does.
MS: Somebody does.
SJ: There’s a food truck that does.
MS: Yeah, there is definitely a plasma food truck.
GH: Probably near a hospital, I want to say.
MS: But again, something has been forged over the time that you have been together over the last couple of weeks, and over the last year, that has made that material hard enough to withstand, and to make something out of this.
SJ: Something is being forged. But I feel like it is very, very early days for us.
MS: But it is forged enough that you are doing something with it. I hear what you are saying.
SJ: I myself am very leery of overstating any firmness or any state to it really. I remember – no comparison intended – two stories that I heard Leonard Cohen tell about his life. A little short one: He said … He referred to singing So Long, Marianne, or …what was the other one from that year?
Stephen: Yeah, I think it was Suzanne. He started to talk, and he then stopped talking about the song. He said: “That song comes from a very mysterious place, and it is not for me to talk about it.” It was 50 years down the road from when he wrote the song, and he was still talking about it like it was a golden well at the back of a garden that nobody can find again. That kind of thing.
I was really touched by that, the reverence he had for wherever that came from which he claims no authorship of, really. At least he didn’t that day. So that is what I mean by: Don’t touch it too hard. I take his example as an inspiration to not foreclose on what you mean, but I love the example, and timidity almost, that is in the story.
The other one is, and you can see the film for yourself. A guy made a film called A Bird on a Wire. Tony Palmer I think, and the tour ends in Tel Aviv I guess. He can’t do it for whatever reason. Boy I know this one, too. He is standing out there and he has his little band. The audience is all looking at him rapturously from right at his feet, and he is suffering somehow.
Then about the third song in he basically stops the show and says something in the order of: “It is not happening. And there is no point, there is no sense, there is no justice or mercy in just milking the thing as if we will get enough to drink. It is proper that we are stopped. So we are going to go back in the dressing room, and we will see if it comes.And if it doesn’t come, let’s respect that.” Then he just walked off the stage. You could see the consternation in the faces. Anyway, he brings the band back and everybody is kind of in a world of hurt themselves, because nobody wants to be in this moment. He is really acknowledging something alchemical: It hasn’t risen. The angels didn’t come. Whatever it was.
As the performer can only do so much. You want to tap into it. You want the Gods to appear so badly. And that is not enough. So the band is back there crying. Apparently he takes LSD in the dressing room, which is kind of a wild response, but very appropriate for the times I guess. And the next thing you know, his manager is telling him come here to the stage door. He is listening, and the crowd is singing to him. He isn’t even out there and they are singing to him. I think there was some Hebrew song they were singing to him, and then one of his songs they were singing to him. They just wouldn’t even move, never mind leave. He wants to give everybody their money back, and he is just heartbroken.
He goes out there and the tears are just coming down his face and he is standing there by himself. He is trying to tell them that he can’t. I don’t believe he picked up the thing. He didn’t continue with the concert, but he testified. That’s my point.
He was truer to the music in that moment, by being willing to know what couldn’t happen, than he ever would have been I suppose by doing what everybody would have wanted, the management, the band, some part of himself, certainly the audience, the reviewers, etc. I would never want to be in that position. How do you decide that?
But I know the edge of that moment in a way that I wouldn’t have known it two years ago. It is not just a musical dilemma. I have been in certain non-musical performances of my own where you can feel that you are literally – it is a circus act and you are trying to put the tent up over the top of everybody sitting there. That is how, early on in the doings, you are. You are basically trying to put that tent up by yourself, and everybody is sitting there with their arms folded, saying “So when does the show start?”
MS: Are you saying this makes you wonder what might it be that you started off the tour attesting to? And has that changed? Are you attesting to something new with New York and L.A. and Seattle? Has what you are standing for or attesting to changed or grown or been fed somehow?
SJ: Well, I love it in a way that I didn’t. I wasn’t without love for it, but my love was really uninformed. There was a generic allegiance to it before. But I am savagely faithful to it now. That has changed. I feel very – I don’t know if ‘paternal’ quite covers the territory of it. I know paternity from having two kids in the world, and there is some of that.
I don’t know what it is. Protective, but not defensive. There’s a radical difference in those two things for me. I feel deeply responsible and in love with it, and I know it is fragile. But there is no weakness to it. It is fragile, and it is very susceptible, but it is immensely powerful.
It is an easy image: the whole being bigger than the sum of its parts, and all of that. That is not really what I mean. There is something that has happened that decided that we were good enough to visit. It wasn’t gone the other night in New York. It didn’t just say, “I don’t like the sound either!”, and storm out the door. It is seriously still there. I couldn’t hear it just then and I had all the human scale sorrows of how to continue, but I didn’t feel abandoned by it in the least. That is very peculiar, because I certainly could have felt abandoned, if my understanding of its appearing is that I always feel sustained. But that is not what it means to be a proper midwife to something wild in this world.
I am not always sustained by its appearance. A person can be drawn down upon so heavily by its appearance that there is no sustenance whatsoever, except a vague sense that you are doing what you lasted this long to be able to do.
GH: I think that is where the smiling came from for me. Those moments. These triumphant things that you fight your way through to the place that you know. There is this notion that you are doing what you are supposed to be doing on the planet, which is the thing which we talk about or you talk about being what the first half of your life is for.
It is amazing every night: The joke is that it has worked out for us, and we get paid to do it. But it’s not the pay. You write some songs for a few months or something like that, but the moments of not being up there as a performer, thinking: “Without this I’d die.” It is not that kind of thing. That’s not it.
But to have these moments of actually being inside of the realization that you are doing what you are supposed to be doing is… I can easily start crying, because you gets that? Who gets to have that? How many people do you come across who get to have that?
MS: So your faithfulness to that attestation has only become fuller.
GH: Yeah, as a bloody gift, in the case of New York. Because that is not always there. We go out to do our best, if you want to call it that. We come off having done our best. In the language of Cohen in Tel Aviv: Sometimes the thing does not rise.
We have kind of beaten the discussion to death around what the expectation of the audience is. Our expectations of ourselves, what are our responsibilities and all that kind of stuff? We’re out on the dark road, heading out of town. That is what we do. That image is more than an image. That is our devotional act.
MS: It is the idea that is somehow a joke and somehow not a joke: You are considering doing an extension of this tour actually on horseback, with a caravan, going from town to town.
GH: One of the hard things with this trip for me has been what it costs, the staggering movement of the machinery and being a part of that and going from town to town.
MS: City to city, van rental to van rental.
GH: Airplane to airplane mostly, the invisible mechanisms under those airports and the moving of baggage. That is when it came to me, just feeling sick.
MS: I remember being in Sacramento, we watched all our luggage go on and wonder how that got there: “See you in Tucson.”
GH: There is sort of this weird ease that comes with that. I thought it would be proper for what we are on about how to occupy the miles in between. I play electric guitar. I’m not going to pick up a lute.
MS: The brave Sir Robin…
SJ: Where’s Gregory? Washing his tights.
GH: That’s real. I was writing today about the strangeness. When you take off on an airplane you rarely look. When you take off in an airplane leaving a place, you don’t look at the land that is disappearing under the plane the same way you do when you are coming in. That probably makes sense on some sort of DNA level. On some wiring level you are kind of looking, assessing the land.
I have had some strange experiences of alienation and sadness in the air. It’s a place where we are not supposed to be anyway, doing this thing.
SJ: You should never be able to see the ground from up there.
GH: It is strange talking about the thing we are talking about.
SJ: It is an emotional chem trail, just to be there. That is sorely wrong.
GH: I know we are going to get to the stage. We go through all the challenges around, and these are banal challenges. Will there be enough sound? What time is the sound check? We have to get the stuff there. Do we have drums? What if my thing doesn’t work…
But you know in the air that you are going to get on that dark road heading out of town. You know that when you are in the middle of the air, even up in the blue. That is where we are humbly trying to go. When you fly in over a place like Los Angeles and you know that you are going to be talking about endings of all kinds, as we say, and you are flying over an ending … Those are heartbreaking moments for me. Those right there, trying to bring those two things together gently.
We are night after night in one building or another, four walls and a sound system, saying at the end “You’re going to die, we’re going to die.” It sounds ridiculous.
SJ: You’re going to be dead soon. There’s a timeframe involved.
SJ: That dark road language is no joke.
SJ: That’s sorcery language. That’s all blues language. Those are real places.
MS: That’s where Robert Johnson got his powers.
SJ: I don’t say anything about the likelihood. I say we are headed there. I don’t talk about it again. It is a very big deal. No one has ever commented. I think it is euphemism for most people who hear it, like all these things are today. It is just a shorthand way of saying: “This should be interesting. Like a roller coaster.”
MS: I think that is a little bit like the classic zen finger pointing at the moon. You can never actually make your way to the moon, and you can’t mistake the finger for the moon either …
GH: When I heard first heard that line about the dark road, I loved it … But I have come to understand that is exactly what we are doing. And we disappear into the darkness. And at the same time we are just trying to hold this very human thing, where one of the things that is going to end is the concert, and then the tour. Here we are, a part of the ending. We are just a part of the ending. What we are doing that night is going to end, and then we will end … I didn’t get much further.
The other thing that has been amazing about this trip for me … It is beautiful, listening to Stephen’s arc of loving something and then passionately loving something that will end, the growth of that or the expansion of that in the shows. For me, I have been a lot about landings, about things that settle gently and then things that land.
But the first half of the second half of my life: I’m in that. I am just so thick headed. We had this great moment in Ithaca. As a write of songs I have to measure up to not only Stephen’s work, but to the work of the people we admire.
On this tour, I realized how much work I have to do. What a gift that is, to be invigorated in that way. I knew it was out there waiting for me. That has been deep.
MS: It is undoing.
GH: Yeah, and that is the thing about the New York night. If nothing gets undone, if we had just come out and…
MS: …did a perfect show every place …
GH: … every place, it would be Mirvish. It would be Andrew Lloyd Weber. It would be Hamilton, or something that would be perfect every night. Who needs more of that?
This thing, the actual doing of the thing, is creating something as it goes. That gives the thing that we are doing a life that we are not in control of. This is not: ‘We roll into town, set the stuff up just so, so that when you pull this lever this thing goes, that thing happens.’ That was what was beautiful about New York, partly.
The code word for this tour has been ‘resilience’, from pretty early on. By the third show, I think we said it with Tad, by the third show we thought we had all been out there for five weeks.
SJ: That’s true.
SJ: I don’t feel that way now. It feels less, much less like that, than it did by the third show.
GH: That’s not because stuff gets easier to do.
SJ: It takes away the time sequence from you. It is not another show three weeks later. This show, the next one, the one tonight, has never happened. I don’t know how that might sound from a distance, but I can promise you that inside of it you are walking down that dark corridor towards where the curtains are and you have absolutely no idea what is going to happen.
You don’t know what kind of response you are going to get. You don’t know what is going to come out of your own mouth, or off the end of your fingertips, or what the people behind you are going to do, or what that looney in front of you is going to do, not to mention the wild card which is X-hundred people all facing more or less the same direction.
Forget about keeping it fresh: That is a nerve ending that is exposed.
MS: When you speak about Bird on a Wire, which you did earlier, it is a bit like you are landing on something live voltage every single time. And if you don’t land on it right, something different happens.
SJ: I quibble about the language of ‘right or wrong’ about it. You are trying to keep a certain kind of faith that you both summoned and agreed to abide by, to fold yourself into, to disappear inside of, so that you relinquish title but you exercise immense discipline without claim. That is how it is to me.
There is a sequence. We kind of know what we are going to do for one episode or movement to the next, but that tells us nothing about how to get there. These things literally, unlike a script, these little things literally stand in the air for a minute. They are almost visible. They require what you know how to do, but they are little more than that. But you have to inhabit their children, what comes after them. It is just the most insane high wire act, to try to do something like this night after night after night.
You can’t justify it, but you can be … Well, I like being a servant. I really do. I love being slayed by the thing and still not be dead. But there is certainly that feeling of being mounted and subdued, and there is an obligation to submit and still occupy that kind of central place that you agreed to conjure by appearing.
We were laughing the other day, remembering when we were doing a sound check once in Australia. The guy in the back yelled: “Can I have the lead singer”, by which he was anointing me. It was hilarious, because I didn’t sing a note in those days. The other night it was, “Can I get the poet at the front?” That is how I was designated that time.
Well, who knows what it is. There is a microphone that is out in front, and somebody better stand there, and somebody better assume some responsibility for what they cannot command. What a lunatic arrangement that is, but that is the arrangement. I would never want to be in a band behind a guy like that.
MS: You have three people. And you have volunteers in every city who are pulling for that to happen.
SJ: Go figure. I mean, revolutions happen this way. They really do. These are revolutionary cells of the spirit that have absolute political octane in them. When I say ‘spirit’, I don’t mean ‘ephemeral’ or ‘ethereal’. If these people turned this energy toward any other thing, that would be something. So I hope it is not entirely dissipated by the end of the evening, although there has to be some release obviously. It is building to something, but maybe it will happen later on that these people have more to do with each other than they ever imagined. The Night of Grief and Mystery could simply be the occasion for it, not the cause, not the reason. Just the occasion.
“The night ebbs, but the reasons why they did it amplify”: That would be beautiful.
GH: We have to attend to the death of the thing every night. This rolling into the town, and the sense of expectation from the almost bursting sense of the thing being accomplished by the people who have been on the ground who have been putting it together for months and months … We have to attend the death of that thing, roll out the day after, or the day after that. There might be a couple of smoke signals, a receipt for this or that.
MS: It is a fading trail.
GH: Yeah, the thing is over. Actually I think that is a really immature way to look at the thing. Partly we need to, for my own sense of keeping my – well, it is basic ego stuff – keeping that stuff in check. “It is just another thing.”
But this thing has matter. It dies when we leave and it leaves the impression. It leaves the impression that it makes.
MS: And we are the night before the election in the U.S., which is called the most consequential election. It is in the air.
GH: But like Stephen said, it comes up once or twice a show, and when it does, nobody knows how to – literarily nobody knows in the audience. I have seen people’s faces scrunch up near tears when he has mentioned the twisty reality of truth these days. It is like fear on steroids, but nobody is talking about what it means to express something other than fear of their times, of the ending of their times.
So many seem just interested in keeping with what they are comfortable with. I have always thought that what we did was countercultural. When I first said this, Stephen said: “What culture? Do you call this a culture?” Well, if this is the culture, then what we are doing is counter to that.
SJ: What we are doing is antimatter in an attitude universe. That is what this is.
GH: That is the next t-shirt.
MS: That’s the name for the next tour.
GH: It is awesome to do what we do in the context of these times. I am behind. Stephen is the one.
I got schooled on that. I don’t consider myself to be a small part. I have this notion now that I have work to do, but I am not doing it now, on this tour. In the studio when you are making a record, you can have a producer and you can have a band, but you have to have the captain, the person who … That’s Stephen. It is absolutely not me. I know who I am in this thing. That has been another gift of this tour. Because that has not always been clear to me. Stephen knows – he knows – he knows what it is like to be near somebody who burns brighter. That’s all it is. And that is very personal stuff. But what a gift that is.
I have been near – I have been lucky like that in life actually. It is amazing that I am lucky like that again. I am 54 and I am supposed to be winding down.
SJ: What does that make me? Wound?
GH: You are tightly wound.
MS: You are fully spooled.
SJ: Sancho Panza is the way to go. That is the way to go, because you get to watch tilting at windmills. You get to learn how to do it. But Don Quixote had no idea how to do it. He had nobody out front. That was part of the tragedy of the thing. You want to be somebody be Sancho Panza, bringing up the rear. That’s the business.
GH: And here is something just vaguely interesting. I know you guys are going to roll your eyes. I am not the most well-read person as you might know. When I was a kid, about 11 or 12, I fell in love with the story of Don Quixote, but I fell in love with the Broadway version. I always identified with Don Quixote, not Sancho Panza, but here I am. I am Sancho Panza again which is not to say that Stephen is Don Quixote, because you are not, right? You are not tilting at windmills? You’re not mad?
MS: He’s shrugging.
GH: You do have the beard.
SJ: I have an idea where the monster is. When I say, at the top: “We are headed there”, I am not talking about the audience. Let’s see where the audience goes. But I know where we are headed, and I know we don’t have a choice, not really. So at the beginning I say to the audience: “We’ll see you, or we won’t.” That’s it really. I have an idea where the monsters are. That’s where we’re headed.
Stephen is a teacher, author, storyteller, spiritual activist, farmer and founder of the Orphan Wisdom School, a teaching house and learning house for the skills of deep living and making human culture. It is rooted in knowing history, being claimed by ancestry, working for a time yet to come. In this interview Stephen speaks with Christopher Ryan from Tangentially Speaking.
Music: “Still Water,” by Daniel Lanois; “Smoke Alarm,” by Carsie Blanton.
In this interview, author and culture activist Stephen Jenkinson speaks with Terra Informer Dylan Hall about death, grief, and his new book, ‘Come of Age: a case for elderhood in a time of trouble’, particularly in view of this troubling time we are in. Stephen will be on tour through Canada and the U.S. this fall with the Gregory Hoskins band, performing ‘Nights of Grief and Mystery’.
“Elders are the axis mundi of our mutual life”
That is a quote from Stephen Jenkinson’s new book Come of Age: The Case for Elderhood in a Time of Trouble. I’ve interviewed Stephen twice before, the first on the issue of ‘right livelihood‘ and the second around the question, ‘Am I ready to teach?‘. As his new book, quotes above, just came out and he is about to hit the road with a North American tour, I thought that the time might be ripe for another interview on this topic of elders.
Because, after all, if elders are so important, then where are they?
This seems to be the central question Stephen is asking and wondering about in his book and it’s a question I see many of my clients wondering about too. Most of them, on their healing journeys, were without the kind of ongoing, deep, sustained, cultural guidance that they now do their best to offer. Most of them did not grow up with any real elders in their lives. Almost all of them have met trainers, workshop leaders, healers, self proclaimed gurus and the like, but that’s different than what Stephen is describing above: the axis mundi of our mutual life.
“An elder Abkhasian woman who was famous for knowing many curses was asked what was the most terrifying curse than can be placed on a human being. Her answer, ‘Let there be no old folks in your house to give you wise counsel, and no young people to heed their advice.” – John Robbins, Healthy at 100
So, what happened? Stephen explores this in his new book, but for this interview I wanted to explore the relationship between the lack of elders we see and the growth of the personal development movement.
The absence of elders from the scene feels important precisely because it is not registering as important for most of us in this dominant civilization. That’s the most compelling evidence there might be that the curse this old Abkhasian woman describes is in full effect. The spell and been cast like a net and we are all caught in it unawares.
Stephen often says that ‘food makes hunger’. You forget you’re hungry until the scent of food being cooked in the kitchen reaches your nostrils.
And then it all comes at once.
You’d gotten so caught up in whatever you were doing that you’d forgotten to eat. Or, you’d been eating the cotton candy, fast food diet of this culture and, while you forgot what real food was, your body did not. It remembered the moment it smelled it.
I think many of us in this modern, dominant culture of North America, walk around with a deep ‘elder hunger’ but we don’t recognize it as such until we meet someone willing to elder. And so, I believe that this book, a visitation of eldership itself, will make hunger.
Stephen makes the case that waking up to this hunger and learning how to contend with it well might be one of the most needed things in this time and place we live in.
Stephen offers no easy answers but instead, urges us to wonder: What is an elder? What is it that crafts an elder? Can one simply pronounce one’s self to be an elder? What does an elder do? Is elder a noun (something you are) or a verb (something you do)? Where have the elders gone? Why did they go? Why aren’t they appearing now at the time when the world needs them most? Why do we have more old people now than we’ve ever had and yet so few elders? How could it be that we’ve had a hundred years of books on personal growth, personal empowerment and leadership, a rapidly growing industry of therapists, ‘shamans’, healers and life coaches, more seminars and retreats than you could shake a stick at, and yet so few elders? What do we do with our hunger for them once it appears? How is it that the elder has become an archetype and no longer a part of the architecture? How has it come to pass that we are instructed to find our inner elder but there is no real-world, institution of elderhood? And, perhaps most importantly, what might it take to conjure the practice of eldership into this world again?
I look around me and I see an immense amount of resentment of young people towards old people today.
I see old people seeking for elders themselves or for someone to recognize them as an elder.
I look around me and see the hunger for convenience, efficiency, ease, freedom and ‘more’ but perhaps we might be better served to open the pages of this book and see if a certain relationship to this old, human hunger might help us conjure the food that the soul of our culture so desperately needs.
I’ll sign off here with another quote from Come of Age. It’s a question, “What will hold the young people in good stead?” I believe that Stephen’s book and his life has been his answer to this question and the invitation to craft our days so that it might be the same.
Note: I wrote this as if you’ve read Come of Age. If you haven’t, buy the book and reread this interview. You’ll see new things you missed the first time.
Listen to the Recording of This Interview
Read the full interview in transcript form below:
Tad Hargrave: Welcome everyone. This is Tad Hargrave fromwww.MarketingForHippies.com and I am here today with Stephen Jenkinson who is the author of the book Come of Age: The Case for Elderhood in a Time of Trouble. Welcome, Stephen.
Stephen Jenkinson: Tad, thank you.
Tad: You write so beautifully in your book about elderhood and the function it plays in the lives of many cultures, some still and in our own cultures in times past, the consequences of its absence, and how it might have come to be that we are where we are. When I think about these cultures, where that function of elder is still intact, it seems that we’re a long way from Kansas – at least in North America these days. We seem to live – first of all, if you’re listening and you haven’t gotten a copy of Stephen’s book Come of Age, I urge you to get a copy, and if you go to get it. If you get it in a bookstore, you’re going to find that book in or near a section called personal growth. It seems that there’s some relationship of … when there aren’t elders in our midst, we seem to have this swelling raft of life coaches, therapists, semi-qualified gurus, YouTube personalities, and workshop leaders. I’m curious for you, what do you see when you look out and see that? When you see the size of half the book store in a lot of bookstores, I’m curious what your read on that is?
Stephen: First of all, that might be the only kind of bookstore there is anymore, with a fiction section tacked on the back side of it as if you can distinguish the fiction section from the self help section which I’m not persuaded that a distinction should be made between those two enterprises. There’s a lot of fiction involved in both of them.
First of all, I don’t see the characterization that you made, that there is a conscious awareness and something approaching mournfulness or a lament about “no elders in our midst.” I don’t think that’s a shared take, largely because I don’t think people have looked at it and decided otherwise. I think there’s absolutely no attention given to that question, that possibility, that rupture, that lacuna in the cultural life or whatever we have instead of a cultural life.
“So, there’s the first dilemma is that the absence of elders doesn’t detonate, doesn’t register.”
So, there’s the first dilemma is that the absence of elders doesn’t detonate, doesn’t register. It metastasizes, and you’ve described one of the tumours that people will pay for tutelage, if you will, but the understanding of what the actual qualities of the tutor might be is do they have a website or is your friend going, or do people testify to having appeared at these things with a deeply enhanced sense of purpose and reason, and give a shit, and some clarity about how to giddy-up because that’s obviously what sells, right?
Nobody goes to an event to have the world changed in a way that changes them, in a way they didn’t count on, not from what I see. All of this is to say, when I look out on this thing, I have kind of a second order malaise over and above the one that you described which is I wonder when and if, or even should the dominant culture of North America actually long after elders.
I don’t think that’s operative but it has a lot of consequences. The failure to identify that and to legitimately long for something that you’re not going to get, in all likelihood, is something I deeply recommend but I don’t see it practiced very much. I have to stand up there night after night, day after day, and week after week at these events and actually make the case for a kind of catatoniaabout this thing, a functional coping catatonia, which is what I think all the self help thing is.
Particularly, I don’t know what to call it. Let’s just call it a dangerous emphasis on growth. It is after all called the personal growth or the human potential, or the humanist tradition, whatever you want to call it, but all of those imply that you’re probably not good enough as you are, which, okay, that’s not an unreasonable take, depending on what the criteria are.
But, then the prescription is ‘more’. The prescription is never ‘less’. I don’t think, not that I’ve ever heard – I was talking to a guy whose kids were coming, let’s say eight, nine, ten years old, somewhere in there. We were talking about parenting and the slings and arrows of it all.
He was deeply motivated in the conversation by misgivings about whether or not he would be able to provide for them, the standard provider-gene dilemma that was coming up in the conversation. I don’t know what possessed me but I dropped this in to the midst of his lament.
I said, “Do you know, if you really want to love your kids in a way that’s contemporary and responsible both, you might consider a strange truism. Your kids deserve less than you had when you were their age.” There was absolute silence on the other side of the phone. It just didn’t go anywhere at first.
“Your kids deserve less than you had when you were their age.”
Your kids deserve less than you had when you were their age. Of course, when you start working on it, I think quietly it begins to move inside you but it sort of categorically, it’s apostasy frankly. Then you just tie a couple of things together, and it’s not. It’s a well wrought necklace, and it goes like this.
Well, the world that we have, the corner of the world that I live in is a direct consequence of several generations feeling the obligation as young parents to provide their children with more than what they had. The more is the devastation of the world. That’s where the more comes from. Period.
There’s not a lot to negotiate about that. That’s the mania and that’s the consequence. At the very least, your children – and I use the word deserve deliberately – they deserve less, not in a sense of deprivation less but in the sense of less bloating, less swelling, less walking in your own footsteps.
This is what the growth mania predicts for us all is we become more of ourselves. No matter that if people veer away from the material increment of that, still in all, the notion of growth does not imply reduction, diminishment, thinning out, winnowing away, being reduced in place and time. None of that is included.
If it does include it at all, it’s a preliminary stage from which you enter into ever deeper swaths of more, of growth and ‘if you’re not busy growing, you’re busy dying’ apparently to paraphrase Dylan. I guess my case on the whole matter is I take my cue from wine in this regard.
I wrote about it in that book. Thank you, by the way, for the acknowledgement of the quality of writing. I don’t know if that’s a boon or a challenge, or even some way that makes the reading and entering into the sorrow of it perhaps more difficult. I don’t know. In that, I wondered about wine.
I should say that I’m not a wine guy. I can’t talk about all those adjectives about wine but I’ve come to appreciate it in the second half of my allotment. I didn’t know anything about it. I thought it was either red or white, or black or white for that matter.
I’ve learned that there’s a subtlety and there’s a universe in there, and I’ve come to appreciate it, and the devotees and the rest. For all of that, we could be really deeply educated in this fashion. Let’s say you start out ten years ago with 100 gallons of grape juice, and whatever else gets added.
You’re ten years down the road, if you can afford to keep it in a bottle for ten years as a vintner. Let’s imagine that you’ve come up with some extraordinary wine over that ten year period because the vintage was kind to you, and the barrels were kind, and whatever else the reasons are.
I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the only way you got good wine from grape juice is that you ended up with less wine, and that’s how you got it, less wine. In other words, the only way to get something that good is to give up in volume what you gain in depth. In other words, the recipe there is clearly for diminishment in wine and perhaps in life too.
There’s something about depth that requires diminishment because failing that, you opt for growth. You become more capable as you go along, and I don’t know where this more is supposed to come from but like all acquisitive projects, there are holes left in the ground by virtue of your insistence on becoming all you could be.
There are holes left in the ground, and the basic humanist orientation simply is not having that, but any other program for growth, be it economic or recreational, look around and in five seconds, you’ll see a direct consequence somewhere in the world for your ability to have a recreational weekend, or whatever it might be.
There’s no program for more that doesn’t take from somewhere to contribute to the more-ness, it seems to me.
Tad: This is something I’m curious about because the orientation of so much of the new age or personal growth scene we’re talking about says, “Okay, we’ll acknowledge that there are holes in the ground and that there are troubles in the world, and the best way that we can contend with that is to put on your own oxygen mask first and to heal yourself, and that will inevitably lead to the healing of others and the world.” You don’t seem particularly convinced of that approach is my sense. I’m curious what your understanding of that is.
Stephen: First of all, the notion of healing yourself is hilarious frankly. I mean, that’s like changing your mind. It’s easy to say, and it’s not a matter of changing attitude. Changing mind is fundamental. It’s an architectural alteration that requires building permits when we’re talking about the psyche.
“the notion of healing yourself is hilarious frankly.”
Very simply put, if the enterprise is to change your mind, the question becomes who is doing the changing. The answer is you but okay, is that different from your mind? The mind that you propose to change, is that the one that’s doing the calculation for the change, that’s itemizing what kind of change and what kind of increment, and how far, and how long, and why?
Does the unchanged mind register the need for a change to the mind? Does it? How could it? It may identify itself as unhappy but this is something else. Changing mind is not changing the weather. It’s changing the architecture, it seems to me.
That’s the first dilemma is that there’s an unchanged mind simply generates from the kind of inner architectural digest magazine, the favorite kitchen and the favorite entrance way of one’s psyche and one’s soul. That’s where the notion of change comes from.
There’s a paradigm program. The problem is that the perception of the change needed comes from the unchanged. Then every prescription, every recipe for the change carries this germ of the unchanged in it, and you’re not five seconds away from what I’ve come to call junky wisdom in this regard.
Every junky knows that he or she should stop using, and they all have a solution for how to do that, at least on their better days. Every one of the solutions includes the junk. I can’t escape the parallel between that and the self help movement, or the self improvement brigade. I can’t.
The parallel is so exact and so broad that it’s inescapable. That’s not to say that your mind can’t be changed but you can’t do it yourself. It’s one of the reasons there are other humans in the world at a given time is that your world and your life is changed as a consequence of the presence of other people in it, not fundamentally as a consequence of your withdrawal into the pristine event that you have yet to become.
At least after 64 years of looking around, that’s the way it occurs to me. I think it’s fundamentally irresponsible to enter into a deal, a kind of Faustian deal that you make with yourself that says, “I know the world is in rough shape. I know my corner of the world has benefitted fiercely and unfairly, and we’re beginning to bear the signs now. That’s all true, and I feel the personal increment of that fiercely. So, what I’m going to do is withdraw from the fray and leave it to the rest of you, and I will self improve. And once I’ve done that to my apparently to my own satisfaction, you can count on me and I’ll be in for the duration,” although I don’t really hear those kinds of vows.
I’m imagining that that’s the imagining of why one works on oneself, and we ask the world to wait, or we ask the workers that are left to keep working, and apparently they’ve worked on themselves, and that’s why they’re continuing to work whereas I wouldn’t assume that for a second. At some point, there’s a choice that has to be made in a time like the one we’re in.
“There’s no retirement from the siren song of a troubled time.” excerpt from Come of Age
We have, as the book title so gorgeously has observed, we’ve had over 100 years of psychotherapy in the west, and the world is by every measure in worse shape than it was, during the same period of time in which we’ve relished in self discovery. Now, I’m not saying it’s a simple cause and effect because it’s a complicated thing to observe but I’m saying this… that the willingness of western people to disappear or to retreat for considerable periods of time because the news is too bad, because there’s too much information – whatever the motivations are – leaves the field cleared for the convicted, for those utterly and absolutely convinced. These are the ones that Yeats was talking about in The Second Coming, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Alas, I have from time to time, and I don’t brag about it a bit. I’ve wrestled with myself about teaching at sort of retreat centers and things like this, and I haven’t felt that it’s a good thing to do. On occasion, I’ve done it because I wanted to find out how wrong I could be about that estimation.
Alas, I found that I wasn’t wrong about it, in principle at least. I offer this little exercise up to you, and I’ve been tempted to do it. I’ve never done it. Someday I think I will, to take the season’s offerings from a given retreat center or self help emporium and simply clip out the names of the seminars or the sessions – just the names, no other identifying information at all – and put them in a hat, walk out into the street somewhere, and shake up the hat, and ask people to reach in and choose three of these things.
Then they read them and you ask them, “What are these? Where do they come from? What are they about?” Anyway, I want to do it because I want to hear what the person on the road is likely to say about them. My guess is that there would be very little inclination to guess that these were recipes for becoming a better you.
Tad: You’d referenced James Hillman and Michael Venture’s book, and I’m curious what you see as the difference in functions, I know you worked as a counselor for awhile, and now I see you experience you, and I know many others do as well, playing this elder function very beautifully in the world. I know you’ve been on the receiving end of that as well. I’m curious how you would articulate the difference in the functions between therapist or counselor, or things in that vein and this function of eldering.
Stephen: That’s a good question. I’m going to have to think about it by answering. First thing is I wouldn’t want to drive a hard and fast wedge between those two functions. I wouldn’t want to be dogmatic about it and not be able to imagine the people whose business card says counselor or something are not capable of the elder function, or vice versa.
Maybe we could talk in a general way about what tends to characterize counseling in a general sort of way. It seems to me that you’re unlikely to make much of a living as a counselor if you do not engage, pretty thoroughly, in an act of clear and consistent corroboration. I just can’t imagine it working out for you.
What would the word-of-mouth be on you if you were not engaged in corroborating people’s basic take on life and what’s necessary, and how to get there, and things of that order? I don’t think the word would be very kind about you.
I learned this, frankly, in the death trade. This is where it occurred to me, where I realized that the basic counseling dynamics and paradigms were grotesque parodies of what dying people deserve from us, largely because dying people aren’t customers, so they aren’t to be satisfied whereas in the counseling game, there is a degree of customer so there’s a degree of customer satisfaction.
Even if you try to do it an end run around it, you’re going to recraft it so that you’re secretlysatisfying the secret customer by overtly subverting the overt customer. Do you see what I mean? By prescribing things like ‘becoming comfortable with your discomfort’ as one of the classics, whereas you’re still trafficking comfort but you’ve introduced discomfort as one of the ways to become comfortable.
“It’s an utter shell game.”
It’s an utter shell game. All of this is to say two things. I had a gig on the weekend in Toronto, and I was introduced – it was a very kind introduction, and rather lengthy, so very hard to live up to, at least for the following two hours because you need a few years to live up to a lively introduction. It puts you in a bit of a hole.
One of the words she used to describe me was ‘visionary’. I don’t know why but I took that one on when I stood up, and I thanked her very much. I said, “As to the visionary thing, I’m just not persuaded about it. It’s rather lofty but divisionary maybe. It seems to me that that’s what I’ve become, not a visionary so much as a divisionary, and trying to live up to that.”
I took my cue from the death trade wherein I began to understand that people deserve things from us that they would never ask for. They deserve to die well when their intention was not to die at all. Okay, so how do you possibly get return business, generate return business, leaving aside the dying aspect of things?
How do you get return business when your fundamental obligation is to subvert people’s root conviction about what they deserve, about what life is for, about what this time of life asks of you, your fundamental obligations as a citizen, your obligations to the generations to come? How are you going to get anybody to come back if you take these things in hand when they’re not asking you to do it, because of course they come to you as a counselor with some degree of personal torment that’s brought them there?
“How do you get return business when your fundamental obligation is to subvert people’s root conviction about what they deserve?”
Then over and above all of that, you have this frankly terrible dilemma – at least to me it is – where you are about to send the person, whatever changes you were able to engineer in their psyche, out into the world, an unchanged world, the very world and its unchangedness that drove them to your door in the first place. You’re about to cast them loose into the same unchanged place. There’s just something about that conceit that I can’t abide. That’s all. I’m not saying nobody else should but I can’t. I can’t practice that way. I can’t see the world that way.
Now let me bring in the world elder here and imagine that it is in the function of elderhood, that it’s not activated by personal unhappiness, that it’s not geared to personal satisfaction because fundamentally elder is not a personality. It’s not a character type. It’s not a particular wrinkle of personality.
It’s not in that sense in any way unique. In living cultures, it’s a position if you will. It’s a kind of status. Minus that, you can still talk about it. I talk about it as a function instead of as an identify. In a world of ‘identify politics’, this is an extraordinarily radical proposition.
The function among others of elderhood is to subvert identity mania because elderhood itself is not an identity. It is when things are going well, the end of fixed identity. How does that happen? It happens because elderhood is, first of all and lastly, a child of its time.
The particular responsibilities that befall elderhood all are derived from the particular dilemmas of the time that the elder is born into. As such, the elder’s own personal life is simply a cipher or kind of a temporary surrogate until the elder catches wind of the prevailing currents of the time.
That’s where the elder’s jobs and responsibilities are derived from, from what prevails, not from personal needs, longings, hurts, slights, sacrifices, or diminishments. If I put all that together, that’s why I said I’m not saying the two functions couldn’t find their way towards one person’s work.
I’d love to believe that that’s possible. The fact that I haven’t seen it very much doesn’t mean that it’s not out there but I would say that there’s something about counseling in its way that does remain mired in the idea that you have to gain the confidence, trust, and so on of the client whereas in the circumstance of elderhood, one of the elder’s jobs is to subvert the usually occurring understanding of what constitutes trust, just for starters.
Elders are not trustworthy by an unexamined understanding of what trust is.
Tad: I’ve heard you speak about older people appearing at your events and wanting some sort of stamp of approval or certification that they are indeed elders, and wanting to be recognized in some way, validated, and yet this doesn’t seem like any manner of eldering to be obsessed with, “What about me?” and at such a late stage in life. I find myself thinking about that question that Parzival asks the Fisher King, or one of the versions of it when he asks finally, “Whom does the grail serve?” I find myself wondering whom or what does eldering serve? What is it that eldering sustains? What flourishes, if all goes well, in the presence of eldering if it’s not ‘me feeling comfortable’?
Stephen: If eldering is prevailing, there’s not much eldering going on. Why? Because it’s the elder’s principal responsibility to work themselves out of a position. If they’re doing their job well, there’s no job to do. Why? Because the fundamental understandings of the time have been democratized, that’s why, not that they’re evenly distributed across the culture but if the elder function is in full effect, it becomes so sublime as to it’s kind of hard to register, and it’s indistinguishable from old people sitting there leaning on something, appearing not to do very much. Let me take about two minutes to elaborate a kind of envisionable story. There’s the idea out there that elders are somehow inherently strong and capable but you could easily imagine elderhood or elders as being exemplars of failure and ruination.
“If eldering is prevailing, there’s not much eldering going on.”
They actually provide active and mandatory instruction in the nuances of failure, the understanding being that wherever humans are wildly successful at what they want to be successful in, the world almost inevitably suffers as a consequence. At the end of the day, to answer your question way back when, an elders principle job is that they’re anointed by the world and by their times.
That anointment is recognized by the culture but not initiated by it. The culture employs the anointed status that the world confers upon the capable elder. This is how the world continues to appear in the elder function, the nurturing after the world, the concern after the natural order of things.
One way you could understand this is probably like you, I’ve been in more than a few dentists’ offices, looking at old copies of National Geographic. In these copies, sooner or later you will find yet another “lost civilization” as they’re typically called where they’ve been digging around and they just can’t figure out what happened to these people. Of course, climate change or degradation of the soil are the usual culprits.
There’s no thought apparently lent to the considerably likely possibility that deeply cultured people cottoned onto the idea that enough of them were in the same place for a fixed period of time, that had a degrading consequence upon the place they claimed as their home, and they were claimed by.
In other words, their love of the place that they called their home eventually turns into a willingness not to be there. That’s sort of the more radical expression of a love of a place is to leave it alone and not to occupy it. This never comes up in the writings about it. It never comes up as an aspect of philosophical enquiry. Why not?
Generally speaking, it’s because our understanding of growth is incremental and acquisitive. Our understanding of love is attachment and increase, a spooky parallel to growth. There’s no notion whatsoever that an act of love could include parting from that which you love for the sake of that which you love.
That I would submit to you is an elder function, to see that necessity rising on the horizon and to deeply advocate for it. That’s what happened to some of those people in some of those places, that they looked up one day and realized that it wasn’t working, because it was, and because of that, “For God so loved the world,” I think that’s somewhere in the New Testament.
How about this? Cultured people so loved the world that they’re hard to find, they don’t stay in one place for untold generations. It’s a very strange and sort of mournful proposition but I’m suggesting to you that it is in the realm of the elder function to be willing to see the deeply unwelcome proposition that our well-intended presence has a kind of deleterious consequence that we simply don’t calculate.
It asks us to see it and to respond accordingly, lovingly, not self-hatred wise, not misanthropicly but lovingly. Misanthropy is a human’s response to our excesses and the irony about misanthropy is it’s another human excess. It’s so wretchedly unnecessary and so apparently called for but if you look around, you don’t see much of a world affirming things that comes out of misanthropy.
“Misanthropy is a human’s response to our excesses and the irony about misanthropy is it’s another human excess.”
As it happens, humans are only incidentally the victims of our excesses, only incidentally, the world considerably so. Yet it would not appear that there’s any life form in the world that has generated misanthropy as a response or as a solution to our excesses. The only life form on the planet that seems to have come up with that solution is guess who – those who are occupying the anthropy scene.
You could say self hatred is another aspect of our excess and another form of our self absorption continuing to make us a clown of creation inadvertently.
Tad: It’s interesting when you speak about the need to see this and see it lovingly. I was reflecting a few weeks ago about this theme that I see in all of your books. There’s a thread that seems to go through all of them. The first, there was How it All Could Be but then there’s the book about money, and then there’s the book about dying, and now this book about elderhood. I know you have a book coming up around matrimony. The theme that I see is that all of these are artifacts of culture. There’s a way, and I’ve heard you speak about this. It’s such a compelling approach, this way of looking at things prismatically. I remember you speaking about dying and how you could see the dominant culture of North America there at the bedside, and often in the school I hear you speak about, “It’s all here in the room. We don’t need to go anywhere,”. I think of the Dark Side of the Moon album cover where the light is going in the one side of the prism and comes out refracted on this other side. We can see the constituent elements of the light just like your books help us see the constituent elements of the artifacts of this culture (i.e. in money, dying and elderhood). This to me has been one of the more profound pieces I’ve had the pleasure of being on the receiving end for you, this capacity you have to see things prismatically; to see the culture in things. That’s the theme I see in your books, the capacity to look at ordinary things in a prismatic way and thus to really see them for the first time. I find myself wondering because this is the type of thing that people could be doing with any part of this culture, any work that they are engaged in. There’s the capacity, the possibility of seeing that thing, be it massage, woodwork, life-coaching, crafting, permaculture or more, in a prismatic way. I find myself curious how you came to that way of seeing and if there’s any wisdom you would share with people about how to see things in that way or what questions might be asked. How does one learn to do this?
Stephen: Well, it’s probably extremely expensive which is one of the reasons that it’s rare, if you say that it is. It’s extremely expensive in the sense that it’s relentlessly revealing of what would rather stay in the shadow. It’s a very costly enterprise to wonder, and then again to wonder about your wondering.
It’s not uncertainty, nor is it its opposite. It’s a kind of, I don’t know, devotion I suppose. We’re not in the most devout of times. We’re in a time that’s riddled by certainties of conviction and prejudice, but that’s not what I mean by devotion.
I think the way it probably came to me, certainly I didn’t pursue it because I never would have known anything about it and I certainly was not “instructed” in it because this is the undoing of it. If you’re not exposed to the practice of it, there’s no way for you to come to it.
Minus the practitioners, you have only teachers. I guess I would put it this way. What I was lucky enough to be in on from probably a very early age is stories of all things, and stories are not just ‘one thing after another’. Stories have a very particular arc or you could say only stories have arc.
Arguments don’t. Diatribes don’t. They have intentions. They have sometimes diabolical strategies but there’s nothing strategic about a story. A story has a kind of arc that’s somewhat user friendly but absolutely world friendly. There’s something about the arc of a story that is as naturally occurring as snowfall or the rain that’s falling just outside the door as I’m talking to you now.
“A story has a kind of arc that’s somewhat user friendly but absolutely world friendly”
Naturally occurring doesn’t mean without consequence, by the way. It doesn’t mean benign but it certainly means that it’s in the order of things, that stories virtually seem to tell themselves although God knows they need a good teller, and they need a good hearer to appear as a story. I was exposed to the arc and the lilt of storyness or storydom, or something from a very early age.
Of this I’m fairly certain because I’ve never not heard that way. It’s in my ear, not a particular story, but storyness is in my ear and everything is available to me that way. I’ve found that people credit me with a certain capacity for memory but it’s not a factual memory.
The memory that I have is a kind of nuanced Geiger counter of ‘story movement’. That’s how I remember things, because the story suggests in almost a serpentine fashion what preceded the moment that you’re enquiring after right now, and with enough attention to that, the story begins to suggest to you something about the moment that you have not quite arrived at yet.
There’s at least three increments ongoing at any given moment that are available to you, not quite past, present, future, what we normally mean by those terms but certainly they’re in there. I did an interview years ago on a little radio station. I came in and sat down.
The first thing the guy asked me was, “So it seems you’re capable of slowing down time,” which wasn’t really a question. It rather stymies what the proper answer should be but I think this is what he was talking about. I think he meant something like this.
When you’re talking about a given thing, certainly not all the time but if I’m on my game, let’s say, then there’s something in this storyness that, if we enter into it together, you can feel the thickness or the thinness of different kinds of time. You can feel the current and the currency of those different kinds.
They’re not all the same. They don’t move all the same way. They don’t have the same consequence for you. Maybe that’s what he was talking about. Certainly, that’s the way it appears to me. There’s clusters of times, and then sometimes they thin out to the point where they’re almost negligible.
If anybody is interested, though I wouldn’t know why after that description but if they are in pursuing this particular way of coming to things, prismatic sort of attention span as you’ve described it, then they could do worse and probably have done than to attend to stories, not for their own sake, not as decorative things but as a kind of an alchemy.
In that sense, it seems to me that maybe elders have a similar consequence simply by their elder function. They have a kind of alchemical consequence that ensues from them, that’s beyond inspiring or dispiriting. It’s simply beyond the realm of whether you welcome it or not.
It kind of mobilizes you in ways that would never have occurred to you, either to approve of or disapprove of. Stories and elders in that way, they’re kind of one recognizes the other. It’s no surprise that elders are fundamentally storytellers.
If you just take the Jesus example, he was a little young so he probably doesn’t qualify for the elder status but in the formulations that you read in the New Testament, he’s asked a question. It’s usually a question that’s designed to back him into a corner or get him some sort of logical impossibility to ponder.
“Who is my neighbor? Who am I supposed to pay this money to in taxes?”, or half a dozen other things, and he responds as, “You’ve heard the one about…” like that. Who knows if that actually went the way it went but the fact that that passed through God knows how many iterations before it was approved of as the canonical declaration of what Jesus actually said, and so many of them remain stories, palpably stories.
They call them teaching stories but there’s no such thing. That’s not what stories are. If they’re teaching, then they’re kind of finger wagging, and that’s not a story because a story doesn’t need a finger to wag. A story just says, “Well, there’s this guy walking down the road. Some strangers came upon him and beat him up, left him there for dead,” and you’re thinking, “My God, this is the answer to my question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’”
The point is, you’re still not told who is your neighbour because the story simply steps outside of the terms and conditions that your little question dictated. It simply steps around them and proceeds to tell the story, and invites you reinhabit the narrow confines of your question once the story is over, if you insist.
Otherwise, it gives you another kind of universe to inhabit where cause and effect are not really the story’s servants. They’re its executioners.
Tad: So many colourful threads there to weave together. It’s interesting, when I read your writing, it feels like you’re doing something very different than I see many authors doing. I see many authors essentially, at least in this personal growth scene I’ll say, there’s a lot of regurgitating the culture’s unquestioned back to the question. What is written is perhaps more acceptable because it neatly fits within, what you write about as “the spells of the west” in Come of Age. The book feels very affirming at a certain level. There’s a sense of, “Yes, that fits with what I’ve been told and I already know,” and yet you seem to be doing a very similar thing of handing people’s assumptions back to them, or their habits of thinking on them as back to them, and dropping the dye in the swirling water so they can actually see the swirl. Your focus in these four books seems to be about helping people learn the constituent elements of that which you’re discussing – using the topics of the books as a sort of prism with which to refract the light of the culture. You help make the culture apparent in it rather than reiterating the culture. So much of the work I’ve seen out there seems to facilitate and encourage, and deepen introspection, and your work seems to call for a kind of outrospection, not that there’s a binary between the two. I see this call to the see the world. One of the things I was curious to ask you about, because you brought up Jesus and parables, and storytelling… it seems like a central approach that many people use in these days in teaching all things, all matters spiritual and personal growth is that of a metaphor and similes and such. I think the way it’s rendered is, “Well yes, you see Jesus, he was using a simile. He was saying, ‘This is like this, and you already know this thing. Here is the unknown thing. This simile will be a bridge between the two,’” piercing our modern language a lot. On the ride home from the Apprentice Program, there were a few of us in the car and we played a game with it because we noticed how often we were saying “like” and it was horrifying us. “You know, like, it’s like.”
Stephen: It horrifies me too.
Tad: There’s a simile in the language because we’re not saying, “This is this.” We’re saying, “It’s like, it’s sort of, it’s as if.” We were calling each other on it. It seems very wrought in our language.
Stephen: What did you come up with as to why you have so much recourse to that word?
Tad: One is approval of each other, that to speak eloquently requires a certain slowing down and a tension, a formality in a way. One passenger in the car speaks English as a second or third language. She was sharing how of course, there’s a wanting to fit in, wanting to have the slang and wanting to be a part of the group and not speak so formally. There was that, and it also occurred to me that it’s very tied to this way of seeing the world where things are like things, so we don’t have to say the thing we think. We can hedge it. The habit was so deep. We would say it and then someone would look at us and we’d reply, “Did I just say it again?” I guess I found myself wondering what are the unintended consequences of trafficking in metaphor and simile because it’s recommended, it’s encouraged. This seems to be the way of teaching but what does it do to us, to the world, to our capacity to learn, to be trafficking in this?
Stephen: I think one of the things that it continues to do is mitigate against any possibility of seeing things otherwise. When you traffic in all the proximals, “like, such as, sort of, sort of like, kind of like,” these are more than reflexes now. These are surrogates for speaking, and not just in idle conversation either, in un-idle conversation too.
One of the consequences of doing that is you’re forever likening, literally, the thing that you’re trying to approach linguistically with the things that you’ve already approached linguistically. Now, you might think that works well when you’re trafficking in information because there’s information that people don’t know, that’s new to them.
If you find some way to compare it to something they already know, then this is some kind of entree of the new into the existing. That’s called going mainstream. A lot of people are hankering after mainstream attention and notoriety, and all the rest. How do you get it?
By resembling so faithfully something that’s already there with the particular kind of glow that all the other knowns don’t quite have because it’s been worn away. My point I guess is this, that when you do this kind of thing, you blunt pretty much permanently the ability to be wrong.
This is the first casualty. You could never be wrong if you’re trafficking in vague associative ways of speaking. If you say it’s “kind of like,” how could you be possibly be busted for that? If somebody says, “It’s not really like that.” You can reply “Well, it’s kind of like that.” It doesn’t mean anything either way anymore.
What if there are some things that are so without precedent that they’re not like anything at all? Can they even appear on your radar? My answer is not on your radar, no, but they can appear in your conscience. How can they do that? By not being obliged to lose their ramshackling power by having to fit into the scheme that you’ve already established for understanding
Many’s the time I get a response in school or otherwise that claims that the thing I’m talking about is hard to understand. Now, I use pretty simple language I think, and so it’s not a vocabulary problem. It’s not even really a conceptual vocabulary problem.
The problem that people are running into, and not really alerting themselves to, is the unwillingness to consider it, and there’s an active unwillingness to consider. Why? Because it’s too expensive to consider, because if you really consider some fundamental alternative to the current regime, there’s something about your ability to get out of bed that’s going to be compromised.
Somewhere in there, you kind of know that or you know it enough to know not to go any further. One of the classic ways of defending yourself is by “not understanding”. Isn’t that a bizarre strategy? I’ve seen it many times. One of the ways you maintain your “not understanding” is by trafficking in a language that says that you have to approach my normal way of talking with what you’re saying for me to understand you, never mind the fact that my normal way of talking precludes anything fundamentally new and challenging, and undoing, and unhinging from coming in.
That’s an awful lot to lay on a word with four letters, “like,” but there’s a reason that, to my mind, the most skillful storytellers are not people who traffic in similes or metaphor, or allegory. Why? Because all of these words point back to the known, the familiar; they’re the touchstone.
“the most skillful storytellers are not people who traffic in similes or metaphor, or allegory”
Like – I just said it myself. You see children in the mall absolutely enthralled by that shit on the shelves at Toys R Us for a little while, and depending on their age, they’ll suddenly look up from their kind of hypoglycemic exposure to these toys, and look for you know who, and if they can’t see her – more often her than him – then the whole attraction to what’s going on is suspended, and they go on a mad search for the mother-ship.
Do you see what I’m saying? People do this linguistically all the time, and that’s what “like” is. It’s groping for the mother-ship in this dark when you’re in Toys R Us and you’ve decided that the toys aren’t enough to head off the fact that you’re not quite at home after all.
“Like” is the attempt to make everything into an effigy of your home, what you’re familiar with. It’s essentially like a Best Western hotel everywhere in the world. They’re all the same. That’s what they’re selling you. When you’re in the Best Western in Dubai, you’re not in Dubai anymore, and you never were because you could just be in Dubuque, Iowa instead. It’s exactly the same.
I think that’s what “like” does for starters. I could get excited about this and really launch on the thing but that’s my misgiving. When we’re in school and this stuff starts coming up, one of the things I try to point people’s attention to is “you didn’t come here to exercise what you already know how to do. Just tell me you didn’t”.
People happily acknowledge that no, indeed, they didn’t come here to be habitually themselves. Okay, then the cost of being otherwise is in your speech (see pages 235-241 in Come of Age). If you don’t speak otherwise, you cannot think otherwise. That is a stone in the shoe because it sounds absolutely counterintuitive.
We really do imagine that our thinking leads our speech, but nothing could be further from the truth. All the habits of your speech guide your thinking, guide your perception, guide your hypotheses. All of them do. If you really want to make a revolution in this world, one of the ways to begin is to hold your speech to a degree of sustained discipline whereby the intricacies and the realities of the world begin to show up in how you formulate sentences so that your language is onomatopoeia, the way it once was many eons ago.
I think we can do this even with a kind of ornate syntax the contemporary language gives us. I’m not talking about grunting here. I’m not talking about making a sound that sounds like a sound “in the wild.” I’m saying that the wild has a syntax and can easily be understood as having its languages which are stories.
The degree to which you start saying “like” and “as” are the degree to which you’re not longer trusting the story you’re trying to tell, and you’re trying to compare it to a story that everybody “already knows” and fit it into that. That’s the mainstream thing I was telling you about earlier.
Tad: If we turn tourism into a verb, ‘touristing’ or something of that mind of wanting to turn the places we find, or the teachers we find, or whatever it is we come across into something more familiar, until it’s more and more familiar.
Stephen: Sorry Tad, until they become another thing that we know. There’s a reason for it. We don’t just do it because we don’t know what else to do. The reason that the unknown is constantly pressed into a mold that looks more and more familiar is because it’s unnerving to not know, as a “grownup”, to proceed, isn’t it?
Or worse than unnerving, it’s humiliating and it’s innervating. Nobody bargains for that. Revolutions are made this way. They deeply and truly are made this way, but I interrupted your question. Sorry.
Tad: I think I may actually go in a different direction due to time, because this is such a rich topic that we could go on for a long time. I heard one person describe theOrphan Wisdom School – I’m always curious when people go to describe it, how they say it. He said, “It’s something about learning to be a more cultured human,” and that resonated with my experience at the school. We seem to have so little culture in this dominant civilization of North America. I’m curious about your understanding of what is culture, and what is the role of elders or eldering in the fashioning of culture?
Stephen: I wouldn’t use the characterization fashioning of culture largely because of that unchanged mind thing that we began with. If you have an idea of what culture should be and you set about creating it, which are basically what intentionally communities set out to do, what you have, what you will end up with is an expression of the unchanged part of the change you were seeking.
In other words, you will inadvertently create the thing that you were fleeing because by virtue of fleeing it, it remains preserved. You see? There’s the dilemma in a nutshell. You cannot flee what you’ve learned. You have to work it. You won’t leave it behind.
So then, rather than imagining culture as something that we fashion and take apparently some considerable pride and credit for doing, we could imagine as I’ve tried to do, that culture is an inadvertent consequence of a certain number of people proceeding in a kind of simpatico fashion when they’re held to a certain kind of standard of fundamental responsiveness or responsibility, which is actually what the word means whereby the understand that their wellbeing is derived from the wellbeing of the world.
We are on the receiving end of every good intent and every noble action that we undertake. We’re on the receiving end of it. This breeds in you a capacity for a kind of radical humility that pretty much takes care of your humiliation. This is the dilemma with learning in a place that’s hopelessly addicted to competence is that most learning is humiliation or seems to require humiliation, but it doesn’t.
“To a cultured person, learning requires humility.”
To a cultured person, learning requires humility. It requires simply ‘not knowing that’. It’s not a bad way to have a school. If I have enough time, maybe I’ll try to make a school that’s based on that idea. I think I’ve done that actually. I would say to you that culture you could understand to be born fundamentally of a grieved people’s willingness to engage their grief and recognize that the limits imposed upon them by their biology, their anatomy, and their imagination, and their home place, that all of these limits are not there to be thwarted by ever cresting levels of accomplishment.
Every one of these limits have been granted to us in order to find our capacity for a culturedness within. In other words, the real midwives of culture are limits, frailties, and failures. The real odious alternative to that is a limitless, growth addicted, competence addled, be all you can be, and if you can, you should.
Limits are there to be thwarted, and limits are only in your imagination, and so on. This is idolatry. It’s idolatry of the imagination by the imagination. Culture is an antidote to idolatry. It’s a willingness to be limited so that the world can continue, whether our iteration of what we’ve come up with continues or not.
In other words, cultured people are cultured as a consequence of being citizens of a particular place and time, and civilized people – if I could use the distinction – are people who are on the road towards being civilized. They, of course, never get there but they’re ever greater arcs of capacity and willingness to leave the path behind, and learn from “our mistakes.”
There’s no learning from mistakes in civilization. Civilization’s job is to not make mistakes. If it does, it isolates the particular evildoers, leaves them behind or exorcises them and carries on. This is why the egregious examples in human history are so useful to civilizations because we can locate the darkness in us in particular places and times, historical individuals and so on.
If we’re not “like them,” then we are free from whatever bedeviled them. Then sometimes you do that to whole races of people, don’t you? Or whole city states of people and ethnic cleansing becomes an inevitable consequence, and before you know it, you have entire non-races of people, “white folks,” which is not a race of course.
Their young are looking desperately to find a kind of racial homeland and racial purity to offset their sense of being nobody, from nothing worth being from. They actually invent a background, invent a racial identity which is of course what we’re in the throes of now.
I’ll never forget being at a small island in the Gulf Islands off Western Canada, and an alternative community in every sense of the term. I was with maybe two dozen of the island’s young folks from about 14 to about 17. I was talking about ancestry and elderhood, so on like this.
Two aching comments will never leave my memory. One was a young girl said, “I’m beginning to see how initiation is so important. I’ve read about it but I had no idea how important it was. It makes me so sad to learn how important it is.”
I said, “Why is that?” She said, “Because it will never happen for me.” She was 14. She had it figured out, sadly. The other thing was actually more mournful but with less grief in it. It went like this.
A young guy said, “Oh, I don’t worry about this ancestry thing. I just make my own ancestry.” He was very flippant about it. Apparently ancestors, there’s an aisle in Wal-Mart where you can go shop for them. Of course that’s what a lot of comparative religion classes prompt us to, and comparative literature class, doesn’t it, who you identify with, all of that.
“Oh, I don’t worry about this ancestry thing. I just make my own ancestry.”
Literature of the oppressed, who do you identify with, and before you know it, you’re cherry-picking again. Nobody wants – I shouldn’t say nobody – there’s an awful lot of people on the move, adrift, trying to be from somewhere, and their option is to be from anywhere except where they’re from.
You could say culture is an antidote to that kind of aimlessness, by being willing to be from a particular somewhere and forgo all the other hypothetical possibilities of being from anywhere.
Tad: I find myself baffled by how it can be that there are so many young people these days that are starving for the sustenance that can only come from older people or this elder function in action, and yet so resistant to eating it when it appears, and I guess a lot of older people too. I suppose my final question is when this elder function appears in our midst, what might we do in response to its arrival? What might hospitality of that function look like because there’s such inhospitable environment right now to it, even though it’s so important?
Stephen: Stop trying to eat it. Okay, enquire after its appetite instead. Stop trying to consume it. Stop trying to have it. Get it inside yourself. Be it. Improve on it. Take it in. Turn it to take-aways. Digest it.
You see, it’s the same language for learning that’s used so often. Our understanding of learning basically is consumption but there’s no learning in consumption because it’s all gone. I’ll leave you with this story. You’ve probably heard me tell some version of it. This is the short version of it.
I’m appearing at an event called a prayer festival. We’re in the back room. I’m sitting beside a Tibetan priest or monk. He was in his robes and so on. He’s going to lead the Tibetan prayers I suppose, and God only knew what I was supposed to lead. I was sitting beside him, and in the vain attempt to make small talk, not knowing even if we had a language we could speak together because I don’t have much Tibetan at all.
He turned to me and said, “Why do you teach?” That’s what he asked me. That was his opening gambit, “Why do you teach?” I said to him, “Why do you ask?” He said, “They eat teachers here,” meaning North America.
My answer to him was, “That’s why I teach.” It was a devastating encounter for us both I think at some level. If you can picture a Tibetan monk being devastated, it’s not an easy picture to conjure but I was there, and I promise you, it was there too.
“They eat teachers here,”
He didn’t have a lot of equanimity that his years of training granted him at a moment like that. He was genuinely distressed at the extraordinary willingness of Western people claiming to want to learn things from elders, to trying to be elders instead, fast track everything, inhale everything, and mainline everything.
As far as I can tell, elderhood, to the degree it becomes sexy, and it may never but I think it will become a sexy beast shortly after death is removed from the front pages. It may be geezerdom instea; the new sexy thing. Somewhere in there, I think what will happen, and it will go into another degree of eclipse is that elderhood will be the next thing to inhale like ayahuasca.
It will be the next thing to do eco-tourism trips to. What am I saying? Of course it’s already in the works, right? I’ll go out in a limb here and I’ll close off by saying something like this. I was in a room full of people the other night in Toronto.
Maybe I went too far, but I said something like, “You know, there’s one guaranteed way to get a room full of white folks to use the word elder, and that’s to put someone who is older and not white up in front of them.” That’s how but you try to get a room full of white folks to use the word elder when there’s only white folks in the room, and you’re going uphill.
There’s a lot to be observed from that. I don’t say that out of any particular grievance. I’m saying that because the unwillingness to confer that word upon anyone but an exotic outsider is part of the poverty. That is not a solution.
There is a lot of shame in that, and trafficking and shame as well, and a lot of extolling the exotic and idolizing and fetishizing it, and all the rest that’s kind of obvious. The sad sort of scorpion’s tale of the thing is that you will, at least engender, another two generations of elder free existence while you hold up somebody from another continent as your template.
After all, elders are specific to times and places. There’s no generic identity to my mind. There can’t be. You can’t fetishize it. You can’t standardize it. If a time changes subtlely, then the function of elderhood changes as subtlely because it’s a servant.
“Seeing that, you can see the function of the elder in a living community. The elder is the amanuensis of the unseen, its onomato-poeia. The eclipse of early family allegiance, the concentrated frailties, the utter extinction of potential, and the wisdom that can ensue from that—in this we have elderhood, and elderhood when it is honoured in the midst of a living culture and employed in its ceremonial, political, and economic life is that culture taking dictation from the unseen, from the Great Beyond. Elders do not take their guidance from their Ancestors and their Gods nearly as much as they in their tempered, archaic, implacable ways are the mutterings of the Old Ones that the rest of us, with respect and a learned ear, get to overhear. Not the weavers, no— they are the weaving.” – excerpt from Come of Age
It’s proper that you can’t generalize. You can’t identify a particular people or a particular person and say, “That’s what that is.” The closest you can come is to say “for awhile, our times granted us that”. I certainly have understood Leonard Cohen for example in exactly those terms. I still find it not that easy to walk around with him not breathing the same air as me but, for awhile, I did, and for awhile, he was something, man.
Tad: Stephen, thank you so much for your time. I know you’re hitting the road tomorrow off to B.C., and in the blog post that accompanies this, I’ll be putting all the info about the tour that’s coming up, the Nights of Grief and Mystery Tour, and hopefully see many people there. Thank you for your time and hopefully we’ll see you down there sometime.
Stephen: Amen, thank you for your thoughtful questions. You made me work, the kind of work I appreciate. Thank you.
Tad: You’re welcome, take care.
Stephen: Okay, you too.
2018 Nights of Grief & Mystery Tour – North America
Deacon, Guelph, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, SSI, Duncan, Victoria, Seattle, Portland, Tucson, Nevada City, Mill Valley, Los Angeles, Boulder, Ithaca, New York , Turners Falls, Ypsilanti, Minneapolis, Ottawa, Toronto
In this week’s episode Stephen Jenkinson speaks with Joanna about: the etymology of the word “catastrophe”; the journey of descent into the mysteries of life; the fundamental function of elderhood; being awake as deep engagement; assuming the responsibilities of the sixties generation; the transient nature of leadership; the challenge of elders; the dilemma of mutual respect and responsibility; the love that life has for us; unconditional gratitude.
Stephen Jenkinson is a teacher, author, storyteller; spiritual activist, farmer and founder of the Orphan Wisdom School, a teaching house and learning house for the skills of deep living and making human culture. It is rooted knowing history, being claimed by ancestry, working for a time yet to come. He is the author of, among other books, Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul and his newest Come of Age: The Case for Elderhood in a Time of Trouble.
“I Can’t Sit Still”, original music by Evarusnik
Death, Sex, Money, Power, Age: all sacred – orthodoxed into Taboo, now liberated back to vernacular sacred, through the agency of Stephen Jenkinson – filing scouting reports from the life-death border… Guiding us to “Come of Age,” by honoring age.
“Stephen is a teacher, author, storyteller, spiritual activist, farmer and founder of the Orphan Wisdom School, a teaching house and learning house for the skills of deep living and making human culture. It is rooted in knowing history, being claimed by ancestry, working for a time yet to come.”Author of “Die Wise,” “Money and the Soul’s Desires,”and the forthcoming “Come of Age, The case for elder hood in a time of Trouble.” www.OrphanWisdom.com
and, as KPFA is in Fund Drive, when we release our guest back to Midnight in Athens, we will be playing excerpts of James Hillman on the 1st Visionary Activist Show (one of the pledge incentives we are proffering this week).
Having taught classes on grief and dying, I’ve read many books on the subject of death, but nothing quite like Stephen Jenkinson’s Die Wise.
From the moment I opened it I was galvanised, not just by the depth of its insights, but by its remarkable prose style. Eschewing the cool, objective tone of most modern non-fiction, Stephen adopts a storyteller’s voice: passionate, poetic, at times elliptical and difficult, but always engaged at the level of heart and gut. For all the obvious intelligence, there is nothing academic here: these are the outpourings of a man who has grappled with death intimately, in the trenches of what he likes to call “the death trade”—the palliative care sector. His thesis is that we live in a culture in deep denial of death, a denial reflected in an intervention-addicted medical system that sedates and lies to the dying, ultimately defrauding them of the possibility of a good death.
Stephen’s influences are diverse, from farming to Harvard Divinity School to talking with men’s groups, not to mention many years spent leading the palliative care team at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. In some ways, he is a radical, a man deeply at odds with many of the values of modernity. He argues that we have lost touch with our ancestry, with the stories that connect us to nature and those who have come before us. He decries the excessive emphasis on the personal that characterises modern culture, pointing to the deeper cycles of life and death, growth and decay, that underpin our individual existences and to which we all ultimately belong, whether or not we recognise it.
Nowadays, Stephen has left behind his work with the dying. His book and the documentary film Griefwalker made about him have brought him international renown, and since 2010 he has been running the Orphan Wisdom School in his native Canada. The school is dedicated to the “making of wisdom” for anyone with a “longing to live deeply”, and focuses on self-understanding within the context of culture, history and nature. While he spends much of his time touring and teaching on a range of subjects from eldership to grief and climate change, he continues to maintain a very hands-on connection with the earth, cultivating potatoes, corn, peanuts and chard on the small farm where he plans to live out the rest of his days.
PIERZ NEWTON-JOHN: I think I’d describe you as a bit of an iconoclast as far as the palliative care world goes. Would that be fair to say?
STEPHEN JENKINSON: Doesn’t seem to be limited to the palliative care world from what I hear. But it’s a good start. Yeah, they wouldn’t hire me. For sure.
I’ve heard you saying at one stage that they thought you were a good idea!
It’s a good characterisation of any relationship with an ex. Isn’t it? “Yeah, once she thought I was a good idea. And I did too.”
“And the greater wisdom has parted us.”
So can you tell me about that journey? First of all, how did you start working in that field? What drew you to it? And then what caused you to diverge?
These are very prosaic propositions to be honest. It’s kind of that brute biography thing, you know. I don’t think it’s really a description. It’s certainly not fate or destiny that shows up there. It’s better said, frankly, in the back of Die Wise. They made me write what they call an “author profile” or something. I hated the outline they gave me. So I blew it up and made it something that looked more like what actually happened. Not something that is understood with the benefit of hindsight, like, writing the life of Jesus, all of a sudden everything looked like it was leading up to that great meeting on the hill. It looks a bit fateful in hindsight. Of course at the time you’re treading water, right? You’re sinking, you’re washed up on shore. All in a day, frankly. But not to totally frustrate you, the simple story is, I knew a woman who was pushing me to be working in this field. I shouldn’t be working in an organisation; I’m not a team guy. I already knew I wasn’t built for that. So that’s just that. There’s no sense going to a hardware store for bread. And I’m either the hardware store or the bakery, but I’m not both.
But you led a team didn’t you? You led the palliative care team.
Yeah, well that’s one of the ways you find out what isn’t right for you. But let me keep at the biography just for a second and then I’ll come to that. So this woman said, “This is what you should be doing.” I had regard for her opinions. Not necessarily for me but I tried it on. And the heads of the palliative care team said, “Take these guys, the dying guys, ’cause they’re terrifying us. They’re really tormenting the hospital staff.” And I said, “What’s going on? This is pretty active language you’re using to describe your reaction to these guys.” “Well, they seem to divide up into two categories: one group is hostile, belligerent, grievous, aggressive, et cetera.” I can understand how that’s intimidating of course. I said, “What about the other guys?” They said, “Oh they’re much worse.” “How so?” “They don’t say anything at all. They’re the real unnerving ones.”
So I started with a list of guys’ names and phone numbers—that was it. And I just said, “I’ll do some kind of group, I don’t even know what. And I’ll see if I can get them to come. To what, I know not.” That’s the promise you begin with. And that’s literally what happened. And by the third phone call I was getting the same reaction each time—complete surprise. So this was a group for men who are in this exhaust pipe of life you could say. And the reaction was always, “But there’s no women involved?” “No.” That’s when they backed out. Each and every time they backed out. I recognise a theme when I see it. So by the fourth guy I said, “No, no, this is a group for you!” He said, “I just told you I don’t want to be in a group that’s just got men in it.” And I said,
“But here’s the thing, here’s what you all have in common. Not only that dying thing, but none of you want to be in a group for men. And that’s what the group’s for. For guys who don’t want to be in a group for men.”
And, you know, the guy on the other end of the phone was so confounded that he said, “Okay!” And that was my first guy! I think I probably started with seven or nine, no more than that. And, you know, we sat in a room. I got up there slightly late and they’re all sitting in a circle. And I sat and I just took my place. But nobody knew what I looked like. So everybody’s waiting for the guy who phoned them. But I waited as they waited. And at some point you could feel the consternation start to rise. And as men can do, nobody’s really looking at each other. Everybody’s burning a hole in the middle of the floor.
And finally I spoke up, and they looked at me like, “What a fucking idiot!”
“This guy’s sitting there all of this time? He’s the guy!” You know. “We thought you were another wounded fuck-up like the rest of us!” kind of thing. Well, yeah. And that was the very unpromising beginning.
Can I ask about that though? Like, what made you decide to do that? Because you also tell a story in the book about waiting outside with a counselling trainee before you go into a house to visit a dying person. Just standing there in silence. A similar kind of bamboozling trick in a way. What was that about for you? Why did you sit there like that?
Well, because learning is a ramshackling affair, that’s why. And the culture that I know well doesn’t believe in learning. It believes in knowing. It rewards knowing. Right? It rewards certainty, it rewards competence and so on. So how do you subvert knowledge and certainty when people have it? So that learning gets a chance to appear? How do you do it? And the answer is, sometimes you have to craft a circumstance in which certainty is shown to have the kind of limited broadcast bandwidth that it has. It’s just not that big an achievement to be sure of yourself. I have a school as you probably know. And I’ve elevated ambivalence to be an art form, or artfulness, that human beings must deeply cultivate. That’s one. The capacity for ambivalence. And when you study the etymology of the word “ambivalence” it has nothing to do with confusion. Nothing to do with confusion. It means the capacity to nurse several often contending takes on things at the same time without collapsing into a decision in favour of one and banishing the others. That sounds like a skill to me, particularly in an ambivalent time where all manner of ambivalence is coming at you. And so many things are asked of you, right? So the opposite of ambivalence is confusion. “Con-fusion.” To be fused with no flex, no bend. Rigid as all get out, you see. That’s what certainty looks like. So how do you subvert that? How do you ask people not to be so sure of themselves when the reward system all around them is exactly for that? And the answer is you have to craft a kind of creativity for the sake of the person, though they would never recognise it as for their own sake. ’Cause nobody trades certainty for ambivalence. Not where I live at least. And the other thing is
I treasure eloquence enormously, that’s probably my stock-in-trade if there is one. Not for its own sake, but for the sake of what cannot live or breathe or appear among us minus eloquence.
So there is an eloquence that many people are capable of, but they reserve it for the things that they’re sure of or they feel comfortable about, or they approve of. And then the bombast or the lamentable Trump-like abuse of the language: that’s reserved for the shit that you deeply disregard. That’s generally how it goes. So in the school here’s the greater obligation—that your eloquence must serve your consternation. That’s one of the, you know, 1406 commandments of the Orphan Wisdom. That your consternation is the place where your eloquence is most relied upon and traded upon and practiced. So that’s what you read in that story of standing on the front porch. It’s not bamboozling people for its own sake. It’s to unready them to make them remember the last line of that story, “You are the one who’s subject to change without notice.”
That’s how that story ends. And if you’re there to serve—and what else is there?—then your service can’t be predicated on you being sure of yourself before you even go in. ’Cause your certainty is actually an insurance policy against what you’re going to find in there. So what use are you when you’re so well defended? So that’s the thrust of it all. And I don’t think I was doing that to those guys in the group. I mean I was as uncertain about how to start as anybody else was. But silence is not an enemy of…
It’s certainly a lesson in tolerating silence and uncertainty.
Well practicing it, not tolerating it, practicing it. You know. Not enduring.
Yeah. Nice distinction. So one of the holy cows that you’ve jousted at in the book is the notion of hope. Can you talk about that? Because people assume that hope is a good thing.
I don’t think even assume. That’s too active for what happens. They hope that hope is a good thing. What I’ve seen over and over again is what hope does to people. That’s what got me on this thing. I didn’t say, “Now what holy grail can I melt down for gold fillings for my teeth? Oh hope will do!” No, I’m not reckless. I’m pretty discerning. And I don’t take on the easy stuff. And I don’t take on stuff just for exercise. I take on the dementing things mostly. So hope. It’s not the content; this is the great shell game of hope.
That what’s traded upon is that the hoped-for thing is inherently good for you, and the dreaded thing is inherently not.
And you’re supposed to live that tightrope or that no man’s land between those two things. Driven by dread towards hope. Not my idea of a good time, but man, you may know a few people who proceed accordingly. I saw them by the legions in the death trade. And of course, the fact that they were all dying upped the ante on those two things—dread and hope—enormously, as you’d expect. So at this point my tendency was to look at these things that were so heavily traded upon and simply wonder if they could pay the rent that they seemed to owe for the enormous real estate they took up in the enterprise. That’s all. It was an exercise in discerning, not in judging.
So I looked at hopefulness, not the hoped-for thing. Because they did get cagey after a while in the palliative care business. They realised that dying people hoping for a cure was probably not the best deal, right? So what they just did is gently nudged them towards, quote, “More realistic hope,” that’s their phrase. Friends, there’s nothing realistic about hope. Period. Okay? That’s the shell game. You use that kind of language, you misrepresent what the consequence of being hopeful is. Because you’re selling it. Like any salesman, you overlook the shortcomings of your product. Otherwise you get no sales. And people are pitching hope all the time. So all I did was ask myself one simple question: what does being hopeful do to dying people? What does it ask them to steer clear of? And this is what hit me: that hopeful people by definition are people essentially addicted to potential, not actual. Not manifest. Potential. Where does this potential live temporally speaking? By definition it’s in the future. If it appears, it’s not potential anymore. There’s another word for it, right? “Future orientation” is the one. The parallel I always used was the experience of taking on a mortgage. ’Cause it articulates it so beautifully, you know. First of all, the word “mortgage.” The first four letters mean…
…Death. And the second part of the word means to calibrate. It’s a calibrated death, a mortgage. And if you ever had one…
…You recognise that very well. Apparently in Melbourne you certainly know what that means! Jesus. So what does a mortgage do to you? If you take the bit in your mouth, “That’s true, I’m doing without right now so I can make my payments so that eventually I can live like this! And the sun can dapple me in the morning.” You know. “And I’ll own it outright. And then my sense of wellbeing will finally be enhanced, and I’ll sit at the right hand of the Father or something or other.” But what does my daily life look like as I do without? This is the function of hope. That it guts your daily life, leaves it in tatters on the beach if you will, desiccated by the sun, while the hoped-for thing continues to be dangled just in front of you, never to be realised. And the idea apparently is the athletics of pursuing the unpursuable inherently improves you. Sounds very Victorian, doesn’t it? Like it’s just for improvement’s sake. As you die! So what I saw is it turned dying people away from their dying in the name of providing a better dying.
You see. That’s the shell game. And it amounts to a kind of grotesque malpractice. But if the people collude with you, if the dying people collude with the practitioners, what do you call that? I call it the death trade. Nobody says, “Wait a second! The Emperor’s genitals are hanging out here. And you call that a new suit?” That’s what it was. And I called it out. And so now I’m on the other side of the world making a living, banished from the citadel.
The hope withers your understanding. It doesn’t enhance it. It’s not life affirming. All that hope, all the aspects of life that are affirmed by hope are the ones addicted to hope. And any hope-free scenario. Because hopeful, hopeless, that’s the same—you’re singing the same song backwards, forwards.
That’s where the dread is pulling you towards: hopelessness.
Exactly. “Well if you’re not hopeful then…” And people will say that and they’ll hold their hands out like this, as if there’s only two. And I’m opting for the positive, and you’re a negative bastard. Well, being hope-free doesn’t make me negative. I’m not even negative about hope. But I’m not hopeful about hope. See? And there’s a freedom in that. You know? It’s not clever. I mean if you slowed down the articulation you realise this is not wordplay. I’m not playing badminton here. I know how pernicious hope is because it makes dying people incapable of dying.
The other thing that I think it relates to is the “more time” that you talk a lot about in the book. Because again it’s about the future. It’s always deferring into a future where you have more time, but “time for what?” is the question that you pose.
Partly “for what.” Partly “for what.” Everyone I worked with in the death trade as a patient, by the time they got to me, had already been through a treatment phase for the disease. Which is to say had they not been treated they would be dead by the time I met them. So spoken differently, what can we say about every one of them? They were in the “more time” they were still trying to engineer. You see? They were still wondering if they were going to be granted it. And their wonderment about this was taking place in the more time they were still waiting for.
So there’s a story in the book about the Filipino woman who was a praying person. I wasn’t taking on prayer and making a joke of it. But that was the story I employed to try to make the case that
if your “more time” is engaged in the procurement of more time, it begins to beg the question, what’s it for then?
More time to have more time so that in the more time you will have more time, and then more time to try to get more and what does that sound like? That’s the program of the modern era. It’s simply growth or expansiveness for its own sake. When does this go into abeyance? Your life’s limit has come to call, walking through the door, not taking over, just sitting quietly in a chair in the kitchen wondering if you’d join it for tea. That’s what the end of your life does. I know it’s a little hard on the furniture, the symptoms are a drag, it’s all true. But for all of that, if you don’t grant it a seat at the table, it tends to take all the seats. That’s the basic thing. So if you have people who believe that they’re being positive and their families are pleading with them not to give up, etcetera, etcetera, the “more time” is the religion that they can invoke to assure everyone around them that they haven’t given up. And then you see what an enemy it is to anyone who is trying to court or be courted by any kind of ending. And the more time never happens. And it increases the depth of the despair. And they die gasping from the sheer indignity and injustice of never having been granted that one simple wish to have a little more time with their grandchildren—that they had squandered in looking for it. That sounds like a nightmare to me. That people can be awoken from. But the sound of awakening from a nightmare like that is a sob. It’s not hallelujah. See? That’s why it’s a tough sell. ’Cause to awaken from that nightmare is to awaken to your ending. Does that sound like awakening to most people you know? Probably not. And that’s what I have to sell. And I’m still selling that I suppose. That vision that the sound of awakening in a time like ours is a sob.
But I mean in this culture where everything gets started with a little “i” or something. The iPhone, whatever. It’s like it’s all about “I,” it’s all about “me.” And so it’s very hard, right at the end of your life, to go from, “it’s all about I” to “it’s something bigger than I.”
That’s a hell of a challenge you took on for yourself trying to change that paradigm.
I guess so. But what else am I going to do with my little life? But chew on the heels of the Empire. That’s all it is. It’s not like I’ve taken dead aim at its cyclops’ eye. Between you and me, I kind of am. But I just think all I’m doing is tying its shoelaces together and hoping it will trip.
But your antidote is broken heartedness. And as far as sells go, that’s a hard one isn’t it?
Yep. Yeah that’s true. Well I’m much more a practitioner of broken heartedness than I am a salesman. I think that’s my obligation, frankly. If I’m advocating more heart, more brokenness, then they better not have to look past me to see it. Right? I tell a story that’s kind of a joke. I’ve never seen it happen. But I keep pleading for the day that somebody writes me and says, “Remember that story? I did it!” Nobody’s done it yet. And it comes to this: so you’re the patient, I’m the oncologist. My job at a certain point in proceedings is to tell you, “I’m sorry, there’s nothing more we can do.” There’s always a lie in palliative care ‘cause there’s always shit to do. But it won’t cure you. And then eventually won’t even slow it down. But it will make you numb to its progress. So it goes. Now somewhere in that pitch I’m trafficking in something. I may use the word, but just as likely I may not. And it goes like this: “At this point you would be best served by going through the stages as quickly as possible and getting to the last stage, the famous acceptance. That’s why I’m telling you there’s nothing more we can do. Read my lips. Get to acceptance as soon as possible.” You might do the following: you nod at everything I say and then you’d say, to me, “I hear you and I can see you’re working very hard to get me to that acceptance thing. Now between the two of us, to be frank, I’ve never really known what that is. You on the other hand are selling it, and it looks like you’re very convinced about it, and man, you’re the pro. God knows that I’m not. So could we do this? Like right now, I think we’ve got seven minutes left in the interview? So let’s do this. I’ll sit here quietly. You as the purveyor of acceptance, and surely this comes easily to you because you’ve got a lot of practice at it. I’ll sit here and watch you. I’m asking you to accept your death right in front of me so I can see the obvious merits descend like a dove from the heavens. Okay? Now here’s the thing. Probably because I’m slow, as you accept your death one more time right in front of me, I could miss it. So you might have to signal me that the acceptance is complete. Away you go. I’ll be over here.”
See? It’s a good story. Right? It’s not just to make fun of anyone. What I’m saying is the people who are practicing the acceptance mantra have done what regarding their own death? Played badminton with it, that’s what. That’s what I saw in the death trade. People are convinced about this religion. But not practitioners of it. Among other things it’s disingenuous, isn’t it? Or worse. It’s rampantly dishonest. You want somebody to do something for their own sake that you know in your heart of hearts not only have you not done, but you think this is a condition of brinksmanship, to accept your death. That it’s only with proximity to your dying, to symptoms and all the rest, that the possibility even arises.
Well that’s a lie. If you wait till symptom time to begin practicing accepting your death, honey, you’ve waited too long.
Who says that? Well I say it and I’ve never heard anyone else say it. To this day I’ve never heard anyone else invoke the concept “too late” because that’s a grownup understanding. And when you’re a patient you have no obligation to be a grownup, apparently. You see this understanding of mine comes from the view that your death is not your death to do with as you see fit according to your own personal stylings and all the rest. You see, the consequences of a bad death do not end when someone dies. The consequences of a bad death are exponential, and they actually accelerate after the death of the person in question. And they’re viral, frankly.
I was thinking “cancerous” but yeah.
And this is hard to even call sorrow because it’s so maniacal. It looks more demonic than sorrowful. But that’s what I saw over and over again. And that’s what animates me. You’re supposed to cool out apparently as you get older. It’s not working out in my case.
And people mistake me for being “angry all the time.” I’m not angry all the time. But you’re not used to someone engaged with a sense of urgency maybe. So you mistake it for aggression. That’s not what it is. But I do know what I’m talking about. All you’re hearing from me today, all you’ve read in the book is what I saw.
You talked a lot about that undertow of dread and you paint a very vivid picture of how miserable many people’s deaths are in this culture. You must have seen the other side as well with some people to know that it can be different.
No. Not very much. Not very much. I would tell you easily 95 percent of the people I worked with died badly. By any sane measure of what dying well is, they died badly. Now 95 percent is not a trend. It’s not a demographic blip. What would you call that? Ninety-five percent of anything. What is it? It’s the way it is. Isn’t it?
That’s the way it is.
Okay. And if it’s a calamity of catastrophic proportion, what do you call it? A plague. And it’s that proportion. And it’s endemic now. You can barely talk about it and yet it’s seen because it’s so pervasive. It’s in the eye. To die badly is in the repertoire of dying people. And it’s the default choice that’s made. Now I know, as you do, nobody chooses to die badly. Those 95 percent, they didn’t even think they were dying badly for the longest time. Because when does your dying badly begin? Does it begin in the last toilet bowl twist of anguish and agony and sedation? Is that when it kicks in? That’s not when it kicks in. Where does the sedation come from? I mean the invocation of sedation. Where does it come from? Is it a pain management strategy? I’m telling you it isn’t. Pain management and sedation are different strategies responding to different things. The dying people on my watch—this is what they all had in common. Their bad deaths were characterised by the fact that they had become small, unique, particular to them. A personal possession which they owned and they dispensed it according to their own norms and understandings and misunderstandings. And those misunderstandings were served and protected by the families around them and by paid professionals who were paid to do otherwise. Full co-conspirators. And the smaller it got, the more personal it became, the worse it was. That’s what they all had in common. So who chose that? Nobody chose that. Then you realise the dying is an iteration of the cultural norms. It was the fullest articulation of the way people had lived as subatomic particles. As what I call the snowflake theory of humanity. “Everybody’s unique! The world has never seen the likes of you!”
“And your dying will have the same gorgeous particulars attending to it!” What was the first line in Anna Karenina? Do you know it?
Yeah, “All happy families look alike, all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.”
Okay. All of the managed deaths look alike, and I just described them to you. And all the unmanaged deaths were remarkably non-compliant with this norm I’ve just articulated. Not intentionally non-compliant. Some minority of people simply had found, or stumbled across, or backed into, a willingness to engage their death as a god. Not that anybody ever said it that way. And the god of death is a god, as is the god of grain, and the god of the ocean, and so on. And all it means is for you to craft some understanding of and become a bit of a practitioner of the etiquette that approaching a god asks of us. That’s what it is. It’s not subservience. It’s etiquette, but of a deep and radical kind. And if you understand your death to be a deity, not an executioner, then what repertoire do you draw upon? Not endurance, not coping, not acceptance. What? Something closer to devotion. Something closer to learning. The very undoing of trauma. Why didn’t I see legions of this other kind? You can bust me on what I’m about to say. But they didn’t need me, you see? There was no reason for me to be at the good ones. By definition, what’s my job? To become obsolete in people’s lives. I know people in this business who think it’s their responsibility to be at people’s doorstep every other day when the dying becomes active. To become part of the family? My take on it is if I’m worth anything to these people at all, I’m gone by dying time. Right? Otherwise I’m a bit of a ghoul frankly. Where I’ve worked out an arrangement where they can have continued recourse to me: what does that sound like? Sounds like job security. Right? And a lot of people trafficked in job security. Pretending that the people needed them. But you crafted that neediness. So more malpractice, you see? Surely your responsibility is to work yourself out of a job.
So in coming in and attempting to help people see their death as an angel rather than an executioner, some of them might have taken that as you coming in to break all the furniture and trash the place?
Yeah. Well here’s the thing. Let us not trade inadvertently on the idea that people with a terminal diagnosis get it and people without a terminal diagnosis don’t. And that when you’re dying you become a spiritual genius mysteriously. Or when you’re not dying you’re a lunkhead like the rest of us.
There is nothing conferred upon you by way of understanding or intuition or anything that comes with a terminal diagnosis, frankly. It is a life-altering event within very specific limits. And this is the grotesquery of it all, that I didn’t see a terminal diagnosis change everything. Did a terminal diagnosis change a dying person’s understanding of what it means to love and be loved? I almost never saw that. What they did instead was they re-entrenched their pre-morbid understanding of love. They built it higher and stronger. Love is not giving up. And love is staying with it, trying another round of chemo. Honest to Christ I’m telling you this is what I saw. How has their understanding of what it means to love somebody been changed by the fact that they’re dying? In other words, who’s the god here?
Everything that resists dying is the deity in a culture that doesn’t believe in endings. And everything that is willing to end is demonic in a culture that doesn’t believe in endings.
See? That’s what I was contending with. Does anybody articulate it this way? Of course not. They just lived it. The white light of death phobia is invisible. Okay? So I had to find a prism to refract it so I could begin to see its constituents. And that’s what I was able to do. And if I have any nominal use to anybody else, I think that’s probably what my usefulness might be. It’s to have found a language that articulates the constituent parts of this death phobia so that it becomes legible and we become in some fashion lucid in this regard.
Pierz Newton-John is a writer, psychotherapist and founding faculty member of The School Of Life Melbourne. His short story collection Fault Lines was published by Spineless Wonders in 2012.
Photography by Ian MacKenzie
Is 2018 the year you will die? Laurie Brown starts the new year with Stephen Jenkinson, contemplating death.
“Welcome to 2018! Your year of ____________. (fill in the blank). Ah the thrill of that blank space. You could fill that spot with a thousand different things! But I’m going to throw an idea at you that I bet you haven’t considered for the coming year…death…your death. Well that takes this party to a new plateau, doesn’t it? We have a guide in this Pondercast – Stephen Jenkinson. He’s the dude when it comes to contemplating the dying realm.” – Laurie Brown
Savour a listen on lauriebrown.ca
Get the subject of their talk, ‘Nights of Grief & Mystery’ on orphanwisdom.com
About Laurie Brown
Laurie Brown is one of Canada’s finest music journalists and broadcasters. After ten years hosting The Signal on CBC, she is now shifting into a new direction with Pondercast. Useful podcasts to keep you company into the night. Free range brain shavings for what ails you.
Farah Nazarali from Banyen Books & Sound interviews Stephen Jenkinson in the lead up to Stephen’s upcoming day long teaching in DIE WISE Making Meaning in Vancouver, BC at the University of British Columbia Asian Studies Centre.
“To grieve is to be part of the human experience. That’s the great dare of being human and being conscious – to be willing to love something that’s not going to last; that’s a grief-endorsed understanding of life.” ~ Stephen Jenkinson
Author, teacher, activist, ceremonialist, and founder of Orphan Wisdom School, Stephen Jenkinson muses about life, death, grief, the natural world and the condition of being awake. This profound, provocative, and deeply insightful podcast is an invitation to explore the depths of our existential loneliness and be awake to the inter-connectedness of life so that we can live and die wise and our existence contributes to sustaining life for future generations.