Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category
Interview with Drew Marshall on The Drew Marshall Show, April 13th 2019. Activist, Teacher, Farmer, Author of COME OF AGE: The Case of Elderhood in a Time of Trouble – Stephen Jenkinson has a Master’s degree in theology from Harvard University and a Master’s degree in social work from the University of Toronto. He is a former programme director and medical-school assistant professor. He is the subject of the National Film Board of Canada documentary film, Griefwalker. With Nathalie Roy, Jenkinson founded The Orphan Wisdom School in 2010, which convenes in Tramore, Canada, and in various places in northern Europe. He is the author of How It All Could Be (now translated into four languages), Money and the Soul’s Desires, Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul, and, most recently, Come of Age: The Case of Elderhood in a Time of Trouble. With Gregory Hoskins and band, Stephen has offered Nights of Grief & Mystery to sold-out houses on three continents, most recently during the 26-city Nights of Grief & Mystery North American Tour 2018.
Andrew Wilcox, from Exploring Wild Ideas, interviews the experts, explorers and luminaries that dive deep into the wild Ideas that are all over our world today. This episode is a one that may take and is well worth a few listens. Stephen Jenkinson is a teacher, writer, master storyteller, Leonard Cohen fan and so much more. He’s the type of person who, when he speaks, you’re not sure if he’s taking you to church or school or both. In this conversation we talk about the need for Elderhood in our society today, the need to ask the tough questions and seek the even harder answers.
An interview between Stephen Jenkinson and Brad Korpalski, Founder of Pure Immersions who is inviting Stephen back to Bali April 19-21, 2019 to speak on matters of eloquence and beauty.
Brad: All right Stephen, well hello there. How are you? Are you hearing me OK?
Stephen: I can hear you just fine now.
Brad: Alright, well let’s just start with me saying thank you for taking the time. I know you’re going to be hitting the road here for several months and probably have a lot going on, so… much appreciated for you to have made some space to have a little conversation.
Stephen: You’re welcome. It was now or never.
Brad: It was now or never. And so we’re recording this a few months in advance of your arrival in Bali, which will be your third trip there. We collaborated on “Die Wise” two years ago. Last year it was “At the Foot of the World Tree Withered”, which was an elder hood immersion, we could call it.
And this year it’s going to be “Seven Arrows in the Air”, which will be “a time for learning something of the skill and the gift of well-spokenness.” And we’re going to dive into that in due time here. But I wanted to start by hearing your thoughts about Bali.
You don’t strike me as somebody who is lured by the conventions of tourism. You’re not there for the coconuts and the beaches, so to speak. So I’m curious what’s the significance of Bali in your life?
Stephen: Well, before I went there, none at all. I couldn’t have found it on the map, even if you directed me to Indonesia. Couldn’t have found it, such was my ignorance.
And you know I think one of the things that struck me by the end of the second time there was a kind of beauty prevailing against the impossible odds. Given the tourism and all we both know is besetting the place, something seems inevitable about the eventual demise of the place. But for the time being its cultural beauty is so remarkably… I don’t know if resilient is the right word, but it’s just the most unlikely miracle of the willingness of a culture to persist with its beauty, to lead with its beauty at the expense of its longevity… It’s something that, maybe, I’ll never forget.
I was driving with Wyann, who you know quite well — he’s a lovely guy – and we’re going among the rice paddies, and I was telling him a story that happened the night before. I’d been to a kind of open-air theatrical presentation of one of the Balian Hindu epics, and I was noticing the crowd’s behavior. It was really distressing to me.
First of all, they really behaved like a North American audience, full of privilege, full of themselves, full of demanding to be entertained, no sense of any obligation to adapt their expectations to the fact that they were half a world away from their homes. And they came in tank tops and cut-offs, and a lot of the women had virtually nothing on. Many were taking their selfies and videos, flashes going off all the time in the eyes of the performers.
And you know, and I knew, we were in the presence of these old and deeply revered sort of spiritual works, and they were presenting them to these people who are drinking their Heinekens and smoking their spliffs and that sort of thing.
So I was distressed about it, seemingly one of the few. Yet another example of North American privilege. I asked him about it. I said, “How do you take that? How do you go ahead, when your holy things are on view like that and not seen?”
And his answer was deceptively simple.
He said to me, “Well, we did invite them.” And there was this long pause. And then there was nothing more.
And there was no rancor in it. There was no chagrin. He wasn’t gritting his teeth.
He was saying, so far as I could tell, “You know, the radical laws of hospitality, as we understand them and practice them, mean that if we’ve invited somebody into our house, then we don’t tell them how to behave. And perhaps they imitate us and perhaps they don’t. And perhaps they take their cue from us, or perhaps they stay just as they were at home. But regardless, our part to play is to be the host that we’ve learned how to be.” Extraordinary, eloquent spirit.
And that’s what I meant initially when I said that the Balinese seem to me to be these practitioners of a kind of radical beauty – a kind that I don’t know will survive the 21st century, frankly.
But I’m not sure it should survive at all costs. Maybe its way of going down is to do so being absolutely faithful to from whence it comes. That beauty, if it is overwhelmed by tourism and glob- alization as I suspect it will be, will bow out of here in a way utterly consistent with its understanding of life and beauty, and itself. So, if that’s the way it’s going … Mysteriously, I got to be a witness to perhaps the beginnings of a kind of elegant departure from the scene, which is that particular kind of Balinese beauty. And because of that, I’m extraordinarily lucky.
And you can see it’s a five-minute walk down the road from that realization to the subject we’re going to be approaching when we all get together in a few months’ time. I hold that up for you to consider as an example in this sorrowing world of the arc of eloquence in its hospitable form, tracing across the dark sky of the unconsidered, unfettered access known as tourism.
Brad: That’s a beautiful rendering of the place. And you know there’s something interesting in this the theme of “Seven Arrows in the Air”, which in loose terms is going to be around language and eloquence. I’ve been reflecting on the Balinese and their language, and it’s obviously gone through several conquests and a lot of impacts and it’s changed a lot, of course, from the original days when it was mixed with Indian Hinduism. And the Balinese, they speak the language of Bali, and then separately there’s the national language of Indonesia, of which they’re a part.
So Balinese has a couple of noteworthy characteristics, given what you’re coming to talk about. One is that the verbs don’t move in the same way English does. The Balinese don’t conjugate their verbs. So you’re not dealing in past, present, and future tense. And two: there’s no verb to be.
So it’s a very interesting dynamic, as it actually informs a sort of relational quality and I think informs a lot of the cultural norms and how the Balinese approach their life.
And I find that a very important window into the culture is through language. Obviously in the West we have a very different relationship with our language, so it makes me wonder: What is our language telling us about our own culture?
Stephen: Well, I’m not shocked or surprised at all that it’s “missing” the verb to be, although apparently it’s doing fine without it. And the fact that it doesn’t conjugate, and as such it doesn’t exercise the kind of English intolerance that tenses tend to exercise: that’s something. You know, we’re trained at a very early age – and the reward system is quite persuasive and intense – to line up with the idea that there’s only one tense at a time that you’re allowed to inhabit and make any sense at all. You can only occupy one tense at a time to make yourself understood, and to be lucid. And if you think about what the mental health standard is when they’re testing you, for example, for brain injury and things of the kind … What they’ll do is they’ll ask a number of questions designed to find out whether or not you can consistently identify yourself as occupying only one tense at a time. Now they don’t say it that way, but if you were to “confuse” the tenses, and for a moment occupy the position that we would call the past, and speak as such, they would be concerned as to whether or not you ‘d had some sort of brain trauma.
And in other parts of the world that very same symptom would be a sign that you’re deeply well-adjusted to the comings and goings of a human life, and that you are in fact to be trusted, since by the dexterity of the use of your language you can speak with some authority about the presence of the past. You wouldn’t be hospitalized there.
It’s astounding to make these little observations, really. Linguistic differences are more than just windows and doors. Sometimes they’re barred windows and chained doors. Sometimes there are no walls at all. Sometimes they’re a little bit of a tent out in the desert, where everything is blowing through and the sky is there just above your head.
I don’t myself mistrust English at all. But I’ve worked an awful long time at becoming its friend and confidant, and I think that minus that discipline you‘ll likely inherit the kind of modern and post-modern laziness and deep misapprehensions and extraordinary prejudices that are part of the contemporary version of the English language.
And of course, this is something that we’re going to be approaching when we get together.
Brad: When I first sat in a room with you as you were leading the Die Wise teaching and we looked at the roots of words, it just opened up a huge gateway into the histories that have impacted language. And it was a completely different world, suddenly.
It struck me that we live in almost universal ignorance of the words in our language and where they come from. And I’m wondering: Is there any hope that we’re able to recover a semblance of that wisdom?
Stephen: Well, you probably know from the talk I did it on the dying stuff that I’m not the guy to go to for hope. But okay. Let me try.
We are able to proceed on behalf of the language minus any hope of “recovering” things that have slipped away. I don’t know that that kind of hope is necessary, because I’m not sure that what we’re really talking about doing, when you investigate a language deeply, is investigating its vanished past. I don’t think you are. I think what you’re doing is investigating the family jewels of the English language. And as long as the language is being spoken, especially with regard to its dappled history, the family jewels are on display. Whether they’re recognized as jewels or cinders, that’s a different question.
But you know a lot of contemporary people, many of them young, have no patience with the language and have given up on it entirely in favor of a kind of pseudo language– a brief and ever briefer language, the one that the YouTube and the email is friendly to.
If you just turn those damn things off for 10 minutes, you’ll find that there’s a part of your attention span that wasn’t completely plowed under by the 5 or 10 second sound bite of contemporary English. And as soon as that happens you realize the old eloquences are not really gone.
Common speech has begun to atrophy, the way an unused muscle will do. We might be half way to a linguistic equivalent of phantom-limb syndrome. There’s enormous consequence to ignoring it, to not taking care of it, as it would be ignoring and not taking care of a vehicle: you leave it on blocks in the front yard for three years, I mean, what do you think’s going to happen?
So that’s certainly true when people are asked, let’s say, to stand and deliver linguistically, lexically. They go through enormous amounts of performance anxiety and so on, being asked to do something that they literally do every day.
So it’s quite a jarring thing to realize. I have a school, as you know, and the school’s principal currency is eloquence. When I say “eloquence”, most newcomers to the school, who tend to be non- practitioners of eloquence, understand it to be fancy, or hopelessly elaborate, or cumbersome in its inability to “get to the point”, those kinds of things. But what eloquence really is, is a willingness to utterly occupy one of the chairs in your meeting either with another person or with a piece of poetry from 300 years ago. It is mandatory to beholding that ice clogged river that is just down the hill right now as I’m speaking to you. Somewhere in the study you start realizing that your half of the eloquence circuitry is to craft an eloquence of the eye. Your ability to have eloquence that’s beyond you register upon you: that is also the practice of eloquence, and its language-borne magic. It’s not a human product or creation. Eloquence is something that we’re entrusted with. But we’re far from its sole practitioners. The made world is thick with eloquence. The made world is made in and with eloquence.
Brad: I’m speechless in a conversation about eloquence [laughs].
I heard you say about technology that eloquence requires us to turn it off, to turn off the YouTube and turning all of it off is where the grace of eloquence is able to visit us. Is that a fair characterization of what you said there?
Stephen: Yeah. Yeah. You’re talking about an eloquence in the ear there. You could say that eloquence is a free floating life form, and when it attaches itself to a particular language or practice it’s mistaken for that language or practice. But you know all forms of deep artistic merit really require disciplined practice, of years-long duration, without an audience, without any witnesses, so that the depth of the thing, the depth of eloquence in the made world, has a chance to respond to the pleas which are the practice of disciplined learning and hearing.
Brad: In the description of Seven Arrows in the Air, you begin by saying, “some of the religions, the ones with good memories, teach us that the world was spoken into being by its makers.” I hear this as a present-day construct as well, that we’re speaking the world into being, and I’m wondering: What is the world we are speaking into being by the way in which we speak? And what of the ‘war on truth’ that makes up the news now, the divisiveness that takes away the strength in language, in words? And is this what’s happening when this discourse is bandied about in the media?
Stephen: Well I’m not much of a media guy. I’m not too plugged in. I don’t have a telephone, and it’s nothing to be proud of. But it’s just the fact of the thing, and it comforts me. I don’t recommend it to anybody else, not necessarily.
And one quick, second caveat I want to mention is this: Your characterizations are really heartfelt and so on, but they traffic a little bit in enormously broad generalizations. Frankly, I don’t recognize my own practice of the language in the characterization that you made. But I certainly recognize that it’s in the air. Still, generalizations that slander language use can easily be an extention of the sloth they’re intended to reveal.
And if you hadn’t said it, I was going to suggest to you that speaking the world into existence is not inevitable. And it’s not the inevitable consequence of opening your mouth either. In other words, the very same alchemy that we’re entrusted with, this kind of syntactical alchemy, can be turned towards practices of extraordinary invocation of darkness and obscurity and hateful misanthropy and worse, which is certainly part of the alleged moral order or moral high ground that prevails these days.
But spells are broken by the same way in which they’re cast, with the same repertoire. That may not be hopeful, but its good news. Worlds are done away with in the same way in which they are summoned and pleaded for, and that’s a vital realization to come to. A lot of people, for example, in my hearing, have sworn off the power of the spoken word, because they find it too easily swallowed up into nefarious purpose — politics being an obvious one, and advertising and economics being others.
I understand. But that’s like saying, ‘I’m not going to mobilize myself on behalf of any trees because the bad guys are using printed words on paper to kill the world’.
See, consider coming ever more vehemently to the defense of the tree when the “bad guys” are using the pulp and paper industry to lie to you. You don’t demonize the tree. You don’t demonize the language. You don’t give up on the language. Giving up’s for amateurs. Well, better to say, giving up for longer than an hour at a time is for amateurs.
This is essentially a beginner’s mistake. It’s an immature response to things, and it’s frankly not becoming of adults. So a deeper and more mature response is one that doesn’t try to forgo the heartbrokenness while it’s trying to get its work done.
Heartbrokenness today, I think, is one of the vital signs of life. And it is to be deeply trusted and practiced, frankly, so you can eventually be heartbroken aloud. And you know, when some people are kind to me in their assessment of my work, one of the things that they’ve said is that the degree of lament or sorrow that I present and practice from time to time is something that invites them, let’s say, downwards. Now, I do so for the purposes of entering into things mysterious: Not for the purpose of making it ‘worse’, but for the purpose of making it ‘so’. That’s eloquence, in fighting trim, I’d say.
It’s not clear to me that realizing how bad it is makes it worse. But it is clear, to use a phrase I read from an ecological writer named Tim Morton, that “there’s a way of saying we’re screwed, that makes sure we’re screwed.”
That’s true too. So those of us who are entrusted with the language or are allowed into the recesses of other people’s thoughts and considerations by way of being listened to have an enormous responsibility to conduct ourselves, first of all, as if this is a privilege. This confers upon its practitioners a real sort of weapons grade obligation and responsibility. Sadly, I don’t see the tv types and the bloggers for the most part being claimed by that responsibility and etiquette. It is an enormous privilege to be listened to, or to have your words read, even for a few moments.
Frankly, I don’t see that sense of privilege practiced very much, but it should be. And I stand for that. One of the signs of exercising that sense of responsibility is to be willing to know how easily misapprehended you can be, and how easily what you’re trying to breathe into the world can turn into a noxious fume when it’s misrepresented, or willfully misconstrued, and all the rest.
So you know I take my time, I suppose, when I’m speaking, and you know that in the old days people used to say to me, “You take a long time to say what you mean.” And I say, “Well that’s because meaning often takes a long time to appear.”
It’s not because I’m not sure what I’m talking about, it’s because the things in question deserve that time, that hovering, that lingering. It’s not a flagrant setting aside the limits or importance of someone else’s attention span. It’s setting aside the notion that you’d know the real stuff the instant that it appeared, or that the real stuff immediately appears, which is a rather promiscuous or even pornographic understanding of what language is for. It is not there to reveal itself entirely in the first 10 seconds, and if it doesn’t do so now it’s not wasting your time with a tease. The language itself bears its growth rings, its accretions, and it deserves some slowing down in the name of its murmurings appearing.
Brad: Is what you’re saying now the significance of the “Seven Arrows in the Air” title of the teaching?.
Stephen: Well it could be. Let me see if I can figure out if I am or not. But for the moment, I can tell you where the title came from.
Some years ago I was studying bow making from scratch from a wooden stave, and it’s an extraordinarily elegant, so-called, “primitive” skill, and it should raise your appreciation for its practitioners, and your own ancestral practitioners of the art form, to a very high degree. I’m not sure that it typically does, but it should.
Anyway, as I was investigating it, as is my want to an almost exhaustive degree, I came across a story whereby the guy said that one of the things that deeply practiced cultures that have archery in their repertoire come to, is they have competitions. And unlike us, where it would appear that the longest is the best, the farthest is the best, the highest is the best, you know, that kind of thing, they kind of retooled what real practice meant, and it came to this: Could they have more than one arrow in the air at the same time?
And they begin to elevate this practice, and they realize it wasn’t just a one shot, go-for-broke kind of thing, that there was almost a sort of a samurai elegance about it all, where the first shot set the timer, if you will, and it was straight up, or pretty close to it.
And the degree to which you could notch the other arrows, and get them airborne, and the speed, but also the precision of all of those things together, meant that the real competition looked upon time as an opportunity to be engaged in something honourable and skilled, not something that would defeat you.
So, I just love the whole proposition. The number of arrows you could have in the air at one time before the first one landed became to my mind a kind of practice of a kind of visual or cultural elegance, or literacy, or eloquence. I realized that I’ve probably been hankering after that very practice when I’m given the opportunity to stand in front of people, and wonder about things, and be troubled by things aloud. And you know I was never all that tempted to get to the point. It seemed to me that anybody can get to the point. It’s not that great an accomplishment. But how you get there, and whether or not you still intend to get there by the time you’re deeply into the journey … Well, that’s a whole other question. And that’s what the seven arrows proposition allows: the notion that the way you approach things determines what you find.
Brad: That skill as a storyteller was so apparent to me when first hearing you tell a story, because there are orders of depth to what’s being communicated. It piques such a curiosity, and interest, and almost brings you into a different phase of life.
Given that it’s such a rare skill, I wonder if you find any peers in the capacity to wield and deliver story?
Stephen: Yeah, well I would say–now this is a guess– and this probably lets you in on some aspect of my personality that I wouldn’t intentionally reveal perhaps, but it’s this: I’m not sure that highly eloquent people seek out other highly eloquent people, not very often. Because It would be a cacophony I suspect, and though maybe interesting in the short term, in the long term, perhaps it would be a car wreck.
Brad: There’s no conference for that? [laughs]
Stephen: [laughs] Maybe there is, but nobody’s ever invited me, so I don’t know what that means. But I just think it’s the nature of eloquence to require a lot of room and space, and you know, uncharted territory around it, such that it can appear as what it is: a deeply disciplined effort at trying to wonder about something, not a report on what’s already known.
Reportage is not really eloquence, most of the time. Most of the time it’s exercises in various kinds of certainty and so on. But eloquence doesn’t require that certainty, and in fact it probably dismisses it early on and thanks it for its for its years of service, but indicates that it’s no longer required.
So I’m not sure that you can get a conclave of eloquent people all doing that at the same time, and this being worth listening to.
Brad: I think for me it’s a wish that the skill (of storytelling) is not in such small supply in our world. That there are – and this sounds like it’s probably trading on the measure of hope that you so exhaustively try to fight against – corners of the world where eloquence lives.
Again, I look around and I see a peer group– and younger– who are pretty beholden to the short attention span and all of the developments that are happening in the technological world, and yet… young people are coming to you, isn’t that right? That’s a sign?
Stephen: It’s true. I’m not sure they’re coming to me, but they’re certainly coming to what I do, and I would prefer that that’s the choice they’re making, or at least to help make that distinction for them.
And yeah, I would suppose the way I characterize it is that they seem to be trying to find a small handful of older people to be wrong about, which is a very strange characterization of a goal: to try to be wrong about what you think.
But it’s the same thing I noticed years and years ago when I was working in the death trade. There were legions of card-carrying lifelong atheists coming to the ending of the days only to discover that their atheism was not all it was cracked up to be.
And they’re not sure any longer whether they should try to be consistent with their so-called ‘belief system’. They’re not sure that they want to be right anymore about what they once believed, that when you die that’s it, kaput. It doesn’t look like the heroic achievement that it may have done in your years of firing on all cylinders. And I think it’s the same thing perhaps now, with the kind of generic antagonism and sense of cynical futility that seems to pervade the general emotional and psychic landscape these days, that seem to coalesce very intensely in people in their 20s and 30s. And I find they speak with great authority from that cynicism, from that anger.
But I understand their almost involuntary appearance at things I do as an attempt to find a place where it can be imagined and established that their cynicism can’t carry the freight after all. Like I said, it’s a strange thing to want, but I see it in there somehow.
And you know this this kind of thing can’t appear with generic reassuring, and ego affirmation, and trafficking in hope, and all of those things. This kind of very strange sort of ‘spirit metabolism’ to my mind can only really appear in the kind of subtleties that eloquence creates and pleads for.
Eloquence is a kind of architecture, and there is the old adage that ‘God lives in the details’, in small places, in the space between the words, in the hesitations, in the punctuation. I mean, these things are all as mandatory to achieving deep eloquence as anything that’s between the periods and the commas.
You know that’s what punctuation is: It’s an attempt to recreate the vocalizing and the style of expression and the moment in which it’s expressed. That’s where those things all came from. Now of course it’s all horribly standardized, and there are style rules, and…
I’ll tell you a little story. I can’t remember which book, but one of the books I wrote, when I got it back from the publisher with the line edit, they were reorganizing my sentences and my paragraph structure and all of this. I said, “you know, you signed a contract with me based on the book that you saw, and now you’re trying to rewrite the book. And you’re certainly doing so in a voice that’s not mine. How do you make sense of that?”
And they said, “well we’re just trying to bring it in line with the style manual.”
“And which one would that be”, I asked. Because they’re talking to me like it’s the Bible, right?
And they say, “ The Chicago style manual.” And I said to them, “I’m a Canadian, I don’t give a shit about your Chicago style manual. You know this is what you guys are so good at. You globalize, and you standardize, and you call that freedom. Look. I wrote a book in Canadian, and this book is going to be published in Canadian.”
And they were completely dumbfounded that there’s such a thing as “Canadian syntax”, and all the rest. But that’s, of course, what localities and particularities, and so on – that’s what they are. And that’s where the gods live. The only kind of gods there are, are local Gods.
And when you have a standardized language, a standardized way of expression, this is a kind of grotesque monotheism of the tongue. You know, that’s that same kind of intolerance that I talked about earlier about past, present, future.
And, you know, nobody who listens to Bob Dylan thinks, “Well, fabulous singer.” Right? Because if you divorce the sound of the voice from everything else you get these ludicrous denunciations of his inability to sing
But the truth is that he can sing extraordinarily well, given the entire package that was entrusted to him, and he crafted some kind of sound, it seems to me, that carried what he was entrusted with, his capacity to see things in the way that he did.
And it’s ludicrous to compare him to John Denver or Pavarotti, or I don’t care who. Ask any of them alive or dead to phrase the way he does, such that what he carries in Desolation Row can appear operatically or in the conventions of ‘the good voice’, and they couldn’t do it. Because it’s a package. But this is no condemnation of them. They’re not supposed to be able to do it.
So, that’s what I mean by “standardization”. Real eloquence makes a shambles of standardization, and that’s one of the ways it’s really trustworthy.
Brad: Something you said once has always stuck with me. You were talking about the pursuit of knowledge, about the acquisition basis of factual learning, “learning” being how others might describe the acquisition of information.
You said, “knowledge is the death of learning.”
That pierced me, and it seems to have the same sort of personality as what you’re saying right now about this fluidity of eloquence and the lack of certainty in all things.
Stephen: Yeah, first of all you can guess that I haven’t had many university gigs, having said that. [laughs]
Well, the idea of it is this: Knowledge is basically an accumulating exercise. It’s acquisitive, and its purpose is to swell over time. This is a sign that things are going very well indeed – though there’s the occasional purge, right?
But, by and large, the idea is you’re supposed to know more than your parents did, more than you did yesterday. That’s a sign that things are working out. And then every once in a while somebody drops a bomb like: ‘The older I get, the smarter my father becomes’.
Some of these things are believed in now, and seen to be inherently progressive, simply because ‘time is passing’. So I guess I take my cue from a more sort of prophetic function, whose world view might be that learning is entrusted to us, and we are to see to it that growth as we’ve become addicted to it is thwarted and undone.
I’ll give you an example that occurred to me while I was writing the most recent book about elder hood. It came to me from winemaking. I just asked myself a question. I don’t know where it came from. I don’t presume to know wine making very well, but I know what I like, wine-wise.
I just wondered how the good stuff came to be, and, as is my want, I wondered about it in a non-technical fashion. And this is what I came up with.
Wine starts off its life as a hundred gallons of grape juice. And you know, by any standard that’s not the most pleasant encounter in life, a hundred gallons of grape juice. So they add what they add, and they put it in whatever containers they do, and the people who know these things are in the conjuring arts, right?
But here’s what struck me as a kind of subtle thing to wonder about: When two years, or three, or five years later, or whatever it is the vintage requires – let’s say five years later – they open one of these casks that the pros deem to be ready, the question of whether or not it’s good is one question, but the other question to my mind is whether or not you still have 100 gallons of anything. And it struck me that the answer’s probably, no.
The only way you can achieve the depth of flavor, and the deeply complex nuance that they bend over backwards trying to describe in the wine literature, is that complexity – or deeply achieved wine-ness – happens at the expense of volume.
In other words, diminishment is the midwife, and a reduction in volume is the mandatory condition, let’s say, for a deeply achieved something. So you have less of it, but what you have is deep all the way through. And this is an eloquence of consideration, and not so much of expression– that you consider from whence comes the deep of anything, a deeply human thing, a deeply beautiful thing. And it may occur to you that it doesn’t come from smooth roads, assurances, hope-filled existence, a guarantee that if you just put your paddle in the water you’d get where you’re headed, that the only limitations are in your imagination, all of these sort of puffy assurances with which people are being raised and parented and praised now, and have been probably for a couple of generations. This has produced an extraordinary scheme among its practitioners and products, a demand to be satisfied before there is any work done: ‘I demand to be paid before the labors undertaken. I demand to feel reassured that it’s worth it, that it’ll work out in the end.’
A friend of mine owns a kind of a national, topological treasure on Maui, and you know it’s on the Lonely Planet guidebooks and what not, so people find it all the time. And he says the most routine question he gets from people who are seeking out this, the item of extraordinary beauty up in the Highlands behind his house, they say to him when they see him on the path, is “Is it worth it?” That’s all they want to know! “Is it worth walking up there? Gotta know that before I start walking. Otherwise, no go”
One of the things that eloquence is, to my mind, is an antidote to an achievement, a pseudo-achievement, that is not willing to be demeaned and diminished – and sometimes even demented – by the slings and arrows of the way things are, such that it becomes a genuine child of its time, and not some kind of unerring hero story.
Another little vignette that comes from the time I was working in the death trade: I would routinely be chastised, yes by the doctors, but also by patients and families, and finally by audiences. They would say to me, “You know, you’re your depiction of this thing is awfully dark.”
I would say, “Well I just think it comes from the way it is, but why does that trouble you?”
“Well”, they say, “Look, I know a story …’ And they begin to tell me yet another hero story of somebody who didn’t die on schedule, somebody who defied all the odds and emerged on the other side. This is the one that you’re supposed to hear about. And they’d look at me like, “So what you got to say about that?”
And routinely I’d have to say something like, “Look, I don’t dispute with you that you know this person who defied the odds, and I’m not even going to talk to you about what odds actually are. But let’s just say this: you keep telling the story of the hero who didn’t die on schedule, and I’ll keep telling the story of the 399 other people, diagnosed at the same moment, of the same disease, who died on schedule, and if we both keep telling these stories, then the whole story will keep being available to everyone.”
You see, that’s another kind of exercise of eloquence. It’s not so much in vocabulary, in speaking, as it is in realizing that when the hero story keeps being told, the point is to banish everything that’s ‘uninspiring’.
Brad: [Makes unintelligible sounds of deep introspection.] (Stammering) Perhaps it’s now time for us to bring this chat to a close. Is there anything else you’d like to you’d like to say in reference to Bali and the Seven Arrows in the Air teaching, or anything else at all?
Stephen: Yeah. There probably is. Let me see if I can find it. I would say this. I’m looking forward to this, because this is not an exercise purely in reporting. This is going to be an exercise – if I’m if I’m successful at it – it’s going to be an incarnation of what I’m advocating. And not just on my part. If I can cultivate the notion that there’s as much eloquence in the ear as there is on the tongue, and there’s as much eloquence in the world as there is in the human mind, and that if these find each other, then that’s the sound that whispers to us, again, that we’re lucky enough to still be alive, and to have lived long enough to realize it.
And that’s the prerequisite, it seems to me, to taking on the extraordinary and heavy labor of being alive in a fairly troubled time. And we’ll take a few days to get together to wonder how we might proceed otherwise, troubled perhaps but not troubling ,without finding another enemy, and instead recognizing that it’s adversity that prompts the need for this kind of eloquence.
Its adversity. And all adversity is, is the rest of the story. We have this phrase “Antichrist”, and it’s mistakenly understood to be, “the devil”, or “Beelzebub”, or whatever.
Well, in truth, the whole characterization means this: the Christ, as a historical figure, got a lot of stuff done it would appear, in a rather brief sojourn among us, and put quite a number of things into motion. What’s been done with them since is lamentable, among other things. But certainly he was on it for a little while. But there’s a lot of stuff he didn’t get to, and a lot of stuff that went haywire, and went sideways, and the Antichrist is … the rest of the Christ.
That’s the function. The Antichrist function is to provide the rest of the story, the part that an over-dependence upon the Christ figure tends to cause you to lose sight of.
That’s an eloquent way of understanding what adversity actually is. Adversity is the rest of the story, the troubled part that your addiction to success will not tolerate. So, the beautiful thing about eloquence of all kinds is that it challenges the standardized way of seeing things. It challenges prejudice and, generally speaking, in a capable mouth and hand, eloquence is the end of conviction, and the beginning of wonder.
And that’s not a bad achievement for a couple of days. That’s what we’re going to give ourselves to: conjuring beauty, in the form of eloquence.
Brad: Not bad at all. I am looking forward to this, as you know, as always.
Seven Arrows in the Air will be in Ubud, Bali: April 19-21, and you can get more information at www.pureimmersions.com/host-teachings
Thank you again so much for your time, and thank you everybody who is listening or reading the transcription of the chat.
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).