Archive for the ‘Newsletter’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TH: How do you make pulse?

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

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

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

TH: Kind of like a meeting ground.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TH: Wow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I said, “I never played the tuba.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TH: Where did that come from?

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

SJ: Get ready for it.

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

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

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

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

SJ: You’re telling me this now?

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

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

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

TH: What is the tree in the logo?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is not the way that it usually gets done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos courtesy of Kathleen Dreier Photography – kathleendreier.com

Come of Age

Jun 19, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Jenkinson

Come of Age by Stephen Jenkinson | Official Book Trailer

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They used to call them ‘records’. I still call them records. People concerned with my cultural literacy gently recommend that I should use the word ‘cd’. It isn’t a word. I can tell that it isn’t a word, and so can you. It’s like ‘esso’, or ‘sunoco’: They told you it was a word years ago. There didn’t seem to be a synonym that did the job well, and so you buckled under and submitted to this baby-word sounding thing, and now its in the cultural landfill of things that, because they’ve been around for a couple of generations, must be true. They want you to be product-faithful, and they give you the lingo to do it: “Just ask for ‘gronk’”, they tell you, “and everything will be fine.” Before you know it we have ‘gronk’, and everything still isn’t fine.

Anyway, they’ll always be ‘records’ to me. I suppose it sounds a bit lost, bordering on dissolute, to continue using the word when the thing it referred to is just about nowhere to be found. Here’s an example: I was in New York – New-frigging-York, mind you – a few years ago during a teaching tour, and my host asked me what I wanted to do, and I said that I wanted to go to a record store. There was a strained silence that descended on the room, everyone looking at me and then looking away. “A record store”, he said. I thought his tone suggested that maybe there was something more New Yorkish we could do with this only open afternoon in my schedule. I thought about it for a second: It had been a long time since I’d been to a record store, and I was due for new tunes at home. “Yes, that’s what I want to do. This is New York. The selection’s going to be great.” It turned out his tone suggested something more like pathos, like I’d just made it clear that I was so desperately out of touch that my credentials for standing before a room full of strangers and talking about anything was in serious question. “Well”, he said, ‘there aren’t any.” I didn’t understand, obviously, because I asked him, “They aren’t open today?” “No, no. They don’t exist”, he said. “They’re gone.” And then I was filled in as to everyone downloading and the rest. Mournful news.

A record was an event in a young person’s life, back in the day. It was an artifact, part fact and part art. A part of one’s room was given over to their display and storage. There was a something called album design, probably, at the record company. There was enough creative real estate to establish the look and feel and the cool of what was inside. The jacket was an object of pride and literacy. The notes themselves were a literary genre. There were influences acknowledged, inside gags, stories from the studio, references to the last record. They were worlds. You could hear them.

A record is a sign. It’s tracks in the dirt, whorls in the sand. It means that, while you were busy, something happened. It is like a faithful witness to something that would otherwise come to naught. Hearing a record is like watching mist rise from yellowing leaves when the sun finally finds them on one of the last warm October mornings. It’s a telling. If it’s good, it’s a kenning, conjuring a language that grants the hearer a chance to attend something fireside and venerable, something old.

I’ve been granted the life of a performer the last decade or so. I have the good fortune of seeing parts of the world, hearing about the lives people are obliged to live, and I wonder aloud with them for hours at a time about how it has all come to this, and how it might yet be otherwise. The technology has been simplified now that even the likes of me can make a record of what he says on such occasions. There must be hundreds of them by now somewhere in the house. I’ve done so largely because the winds of consternation and inspiration blow through these events so frequently that later on I’m unable to remember much of what I said. I’m curious as to whether they were as good as I often remember them to be. People routinely ask for copies of the recordings, offer to pay for them. I tell them that the events are for them, but that the recordings are for me. They are for helping me get a sense of what I’ve been trying to do over the years, since I don’t have a master plan. We put out a few recordings in the early years. There was no editing, no fine tuning, and each of them would have benefitted from a bit of that. I haven’t considered doing so again since then.

But your mind changes. With luck, it changes in concert with your changing life. By means marginal and miraculous I acquired a band for part of this Orphan Wisdom enterprise, one Gregory Hoskins. Tours materialized. Wonder of wonders, philanthropic and government funding materialized, and this strange endeavor qualified for it. The application forms were utter torment: What even to call this thing that I was doing? Theater? Music? Spoken-word improvisation? I applied for visas to do this thing on the up and up, and came to realize that I was being vetted for the opportunity to offer cognitive dissonance to the general public. Roadies volunteered. People crowd funded roadies to accompany us. People offered their cars and their navigational devices, their connections. Strangers threw themselves into organizing gigs in other countries, on the other side of the world. Then the chance came to do a proper, gear-lugging tour of Australia and New Zealand earlier this year, fifteen or so gigs in a month, and we brought proper recording capacity with us. After a few gigs the kinks were ironed out, and it worked pretty well. Then came a tour of the U.K., seven gigs in eight nights, and more recordings.

We got home. I went about fulfilling book-contract obligations, readying myself for upcoming school sessions, worrying about the daily rains and what they were doing to the corn in the field. Mr. Hoskins turned his producing chops upon the tapes. (I know: They aren’t tapes anymore. I’m calling them tapes. Some things don’t change.) After a while he called and said, “Maybe you want to listen to this.” He’d done something more than clean up the sound, more than fine tune what happened when we walked out onto the stage: He’d made another event.

You’ve heard of dry lightning. The storm’s far enough away that there’s no rain, but your sky alights, and the rumble of elsewhere is there at the edge of your alertness, and something happens to your understanding of the world: It’s bigger than you remember, and there’s that miracle of the Other Place, not a copy of your own.

So there’s a record coming out in a few weeks. It’ll look like a cd, but it’ll be a record. It’s called: Nights of Grief and Mystery. That is surely what they were. But to me the record is dry lightning: A sign caught in a jar that things happened, and are still happening. When I get one, I’ll put it beside my other records, on that Wonders Never Cease shelf.

So we haven’t ‘cd’d’ anything here. We recorded it.

Bold

Feb 13, 2017

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One of the things that seemed to concern my mother during her parenting years was the danger of rearing children who turned out ‘bold’. That was the darkening term, as I recall. ‘Don’t be bold’: she didn’t say it more than a few times, but the caveat was thoroughly practiced, and I recall it clearly. ‘Bold’ was for the Mediterranean lineages. I had the impression then that ‘bold’ was for the Catholic kids too, though in the early going it wasn’t clear what ‘Catholic’ was. It was only clear that, whatever we were, we weren’t Catholic. ‘Bold’, as it was presented to us, wasn’t really a character flaw, though it flirted on the edge of that purgatory. It was more something like flamboyance, an uncalled-for drawing of attention to yourself. Just on the other side of ‘bold’ you’d probably find ‘gypsy’, and it was just downhill, morally, from there. It was a bit of a grim lesson in insignificance, something just short of unworthiness, though I’m sure no one who tried to cure us of being bold thought of it that way. They were looking out for their young, and that was how they did it then, enforcing a kind of radical reserve or reluctance that was known then as well-mannered, or shy. Surely what underwrote the whole enterprise was a dread of standing out.

I write all this down while deeply in the morning-after of a concert given in Toronto, one of the Nights of Grief and Mystery I am prone to. Three hundred or so people on a snowy Friday night, gathered with no promise of distraction or reassurance or continuing education credit – with no promise at all, really. I’m baffled by this, every time. And honoured. Coming into the city from the farm a few days ago, subject to the video-game traffic swarm I am now totally a stranger to, I was keenly aware again of the considerable distance there is between my daily life and theirs, and I wondered as ​I ​do each time whether there was anything in what I’ve been granted or entrusted with that could have any use for busy urban folk. Calving off from the glaciers of pure mystery there are very kind offers to have me appear in various countries in the last while, and they have crafted for me a life I wouldn’t have imagined: night after night the subject of intense and temporary curiosity and attention, being troubled aloud and mystified by ordinary things. This is pure privilege for me, braced by grace. They say that getting older is the time for calming down. If so, it isn’t working out.

How very odd it is now, me deep into the later third of my days, to be flirting when the occasion presents itself with being bold. I am as Anglo-Saxon as I ever was, to be sure, but I seem to be a lapsed Anglo-Saxon, more and more of the non-practicing kind, as time goes on, less and less claimed by those kin. Odder still, I get to do so sometimes with the blessing of a band, and a Catholic one at that, in the person of singer/songwriter Gregory Hoskins. The whole enterprise subjects me to wonder at the shape of my own little life, though it isn’t one my childhood, free of the bold, prepared me for.

We are some days away now from a tour of Australia, New Zealand and the surrounding jurisdictions, and we are ready. There have been some confused requests for more information about these Nights that we propose, and beyond what I’ve already written before now decorum and my old training restrains any claims I might make on their behalf. How to exercise dominion over something that has yet to happen? It is certainly true that whatever I’ve seen and done isn’t draped in the rags of universal truth. I’ve no reason to believe that anyone in my area code needs any of it, never mind those who live out beyond the dark and rolling seas. But I don’t question the invitations. I obey them. We aren’t poets, I wouldn’t say, but the evenings are poetic. They are musical and grave and raucous and stilling, which probably means they are theatrical. I would call them bardic, and I would call them timely. They are nights devoted to the ragged mysteries of being human, and so grief and endings of all kinds appear. You could say they have something archaic about them that remind many of ancestral nights around the fire. They are nights in which love letters to life are written and read. And bold, yes. There’s some boldness in them. They have that tone. It’s a risk, given my early education, but seems in keeping with what these times of ours ask of us. And that is what you could count on: these teachings and these concerts have the mark of our time upon them, and they’ve become  urgent, alert, quixotic, with some swagger.

You could say this: One day, someone a half or a third our age will come to you with two questions. The first will be something like, ‘When you were my age, did you know what was happening to the world?’ The fairest answer has to be: ‘Some did and some didn’t. Anyone who wanted to know could have known, yes.’ The second question will be, ‘So, what did you do?’ We in the stage light glare are of the age where these questions are starting to come. This Oceania Tour, these Nights of Grief and Mystery, ​and these teachings of mine I’ve come to call ‘Die Wise: Making Meaning’ and ‘Old Time: Learning Elderhood’ ​they are our answer. For those of you who buy a ticket and come, and spread the word a bit: Thank you for giving us a way of giving the young an honest, honourable answer.

Stephen Jenkinson, MTS, MSW

Find tour, dates, locations, teaching descriptions and ticket purchase for the Oceania Tour 2017: Nights of Grief and Mystery online.

Video: Oceania Tour 2017: Nights of Grief and Mystery Preview

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It could be that some of you have been waiting for this small piece of news a long time, perhaps longer than a long time, or perhaps it has seemed that way. The waiting list for a new school grew to many hundreds while I wandered the hemispheres on the Mankiller Tour, (which began casually in 2015 and hasn’t come to it’s senses yet). No one on this end saw that coming. The waiting list folks have been chewing this bone for a few days, and now we are letting it be known that a new class of the Orphan Wisdom School here in eastern Ontario, Canada will gather in the coming spring (First session: May 3-7, 2017). There will be another new class for our friends overseas which will have it’s beginning in Wales, UK (First session: May 17-21, 2017).

It is news to no one that we are in some strange days. Strange days. I want you to be assured by one thing: that strangeness and these days will crowd the threshold of the Orphan Wisdom School, and they will get the harrowing and the heartache they deserve as we go about our learning. Perhaps there are mysteries tethered to the stake now. Maybe this is what it has come to. Perhaps some portion of this mystifying and sorrowed world is attending to the way in which we awaken, sorrowed as some of us are. This newest not-quite-yet-conjured Orphan Wisdom School will proceed accordingly, with little evidence that this is so or that what we do might consequence the deal.

Would that our endangered and dangerous days be remembered, years from now, as a time when some gathered and rose up and, truant no more, learned their lives. Then our learning together will begin to be tethered to something vast and thrilled, and burdened with purpose,

Stephen Jenkinson, MTS, MSW

Learn more about all the new class dates and registration information on the School page.  

Still, mostly. That’s where I sit tonight. Perhaps you are still, too. It’s already begun. There’ll be torrents, and the building up of memory, and the betrayal of endings. But not from here. It’s still, mostly, where I am. I made some pretty stout vows about this day, some rash and utterly faithful declarations. I questioned the merit of ploughing the field of any day that he did not awaken to. I have my reasons. I do not this night credit any ability – any willingness – to go on into a time, a world, no longer adored as he adored it. I did not meet him. I’m glad of that. I was in the same building once. I’m glad of that, too. I saw him doff his hat. He bowed. What else is there? This is not night. It isn’t day. This isn’t any kind of time. This is ending. Patron saint, unawares. Imagine: a master practitioner of sorrow, levelling with anyone who’d listen. Levelling with the Makers. I suppose he just asked to be let out. They let him out. How poor again, the world. And winter coming on.  

I have – it is no secret, and there is no suspense – made something of a living by being troubled aloud about ordinary things. This has been my fortune. It could be that many of you reading this have had a hand in it; you have my thanks. There has from time to time been a fugitive notoriety that has gathered itself around these overly principled laments, Sancho Panza style. About this I am both guarded and grateful in fitful, equal measure. A while ago I was speaking with a friend who reminded me that he knew me – his phrase – before I was famous. ‘Stick around’, I told him, ‘you’ll know me afterwards too.’ That might sound sullen or untrusting, but think of it as my citizenship declaring itself, a northern version of how some of us keep ourselves in check, of not being bold. Envying them in ignoble fashion, some of us up here still tend to leave ‘bold’ to our American neighbours.

It is canonical to say that such notoriety doesn’t endear you to those with whom you share a neighbourhood. And it does make strange bedfellows of some workers in the sorrow fields, alas. Notoriety is hard work for everyone involved, and the work clothes rarely favour the worker. Would that they favoured the work instead.

Imagine though how the day might go if some of us were awakened to the unflagging sway of this grace: It may be that we are not emperors of intent, governed and governing by what we mean. Could we be people of consequence instead, purveyors of the waxing and the waning, properly in thrall to the alert, lucid and honourably troubled genius of our time? And more: Could it be that we are meant? Troubled people born to a troubled time, yes, but chosen by trouble as its balm. Chosen not for affliction but for anointing.

Taste that on your tongue: we are a meant people, we humans. I don’t say this is a recipe for heroism, or vainglory, or triumphalism. I don’t say that we are meant to rule, or prevail, or even continue, but only that we are likely on the receiving end of every good idea, good fortune or good day we’ve had. Just as a dream may be the murmuring of a neglected, quieter self, so may it be that the fact that we dream at all, and that we are bent at times towards the little altar of abandoned stones out behind the house that are regrets, and that on our better days still hanker after mercy and after justice, that all of this might be the murmuring of  neglected precursors and unsuspected totemic lines of ancestors, human and otherwise, riding us into the world? The human-centered epoch, the anthroposcene era: the wags say that is what we have ushered in, everything made in our image. The anthroposcene era might be the loneliest time yet for humans in search of humanity. And yet we are crowded by throngs of the unclaimed, of Those Who Came Before – Those From Whom Our Meaning Comes.

Being vexed by the grim parade might only be a defensible line of work in a time crazed into stratagem and solution. In our particular strange days, in this tangle of mysteries granted us, I’ve seen that you can sell out the place if the programme promises schemes for deliverance. In so doing, there is the small matter of selling out the people who come when you do. You won’t often be forgiven if you are short on  fix, though. It happens that way, frequently.

We’ve been trained from an early age to lavish whatever skill of the tongue we’ve managed on things we are sure of and succored by. Still, there is a certain eloquence that might yet be reserved for consternation, fit for it, and that eloquence, fix-free, serves the trouble and the troubled faithfully and well. That is the modest proposal of the Orphan Wisdom School: to be tethered to your time, serving its bloat and its sorrows best by sorrowing from time to time, arrayed in fineness of speech, ennobling to hear, on occasion giving up the day off, a recognizable denizen of the dismal and the dim. You might not believe it, but some people do grow something like a taste for this, and become practitioners of speaking and of hearing this elegant thing. They savour the sounds that sorrow no longer locked in the private and the personal plays down the length of their bones and their days. And it thrills me that they do.

All of it is confounding enough when people come to this school of mine, and that is why I have against good judgment thrown the doors open occasionally to convene another congress of wonder – something I may do again.  It is unnervingly unlikely that I should be invited to bring this ramshackling torrent to other jurisdictions, other countries even. I couldn’t craft such a thing, even if I had designs to do so. Too presumptuous. Nothing in what I do, conjured in one little corner of this world, seems to favour translation to anywhere else, not to me. But invitations cross the threshold, and the honour is mine, and the troubles of these days seem to ask that once in a while we go out beyond where we might belong.

So early in the year, summoned by kindness and cajoled and prodded and listening, I am bound for Oceana: Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, Bali perhaps. This time I am festooned with a band. Gregory Hoskins will lend his music and his road-tested grace to the cause. This cannot possibly succeed, certainly not financially, and it cannot possibly translate, I shouldn’t think, and I could not persuade myself of any necessity for it. But the grace of invitation prompts us both to risk notoriety and belonging and the chagrin of neighbours one more time. Cantos and controversy are in the offing.

What might we call an evening of mongrel sorrow and dappled magic and wonder, fringed with regard for the gift of the tongue entrusted to us, harkening and hortatory and bardic and greying, steeped in mortal mystery, uprooted from its uncertain home in the North of America and cast divination-style like bones on a dusty proving ground so far away?

We might call it: Nights of Grief and Mystery. Should we all be spared, we might see some of you there.

Stephen Jenkinson, MTS, MSW Founder of The Orphan Wisdom School

A Note: If you’re interested in hosting Stephen in your community while he is on tour in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania and Bali, or elsewhere, please be in touch with us.

Photo courtesy of Ian MacKenzie.

I was at a film festival a few years ago, having just screened Griefwalker, and I was sitting beside Ian Tamblyn, one of Canada’s finest troubadours. We knew each other not at all, but it can happen that something like an Old Sorrow binds people for a time, to the moment of their meeting and to the uncharted lives that have brought them to it. And so Ian began telling me how it seemed that he had many people, friends of his own age especially, suddenly dying around him. I wondered with him whether it might not have come to be that he was old enough now that that was going to happen more and more, a sure sign that he wasn’t left out of life or its ways of carrying on. Ian Tamblyn and I sat quietly for a while after that, and then he looked off across the crowd of people and through the window, out onto the turning, widening gyre that is this world that we’ve been granted to, and he said, “Ahh, dying. That’s the Big Tent.”

And it is, of course, the Main Event, the gathering-in round which all others are gathered. We were both old enough that evening for all of that – the dying and the news and the steady parade making its way past us for now – to have deeply and truly begun. But no matter how many endings before our own have unspooled before us, none of this makes us ready to see it, not when all of that grinds away in a culture that resolutely does not believe in it. There’s nothing inevitable about getting it. There’s no microchip in your birth certificate or mine (though they are, I’ll grant you, probably working on this in the private sector, which might be the only sector left) that will prompt us towards candor or courage or wisdom or elderhood, or seeing what is there to be seen.

So, being ‘ready’ for a seat in the Big Tent is something that might come in after the fact – and maybe because of the fact – but rarely before so. And ‘sudden’? What makes one ending sudden, and another not so much? Well, ‘sudden’ doesn’t really come from how long the ending takes to end, no matter its brevity. A sudden ending isn’t sudden because it is quick. No, a sudden ending is sudden because, though it was there to be seen, and known, and lived, it wasn’t. ‘Sudden’, strangely, comes directly from the haphazardly guarded vault of what you claim to know. That’s where you’ll find it, in those times when you’re granted entry, that feel that something has occurred that careens out of the mists and into your days utterly, inconveniently and discourteously out of Nowhere. You seem to know it’s sudden, but you don’t seem to know why.

There are guards, you see, at the entrance to kingdom of what you know, Wizard of Oz style, whose vigilance is staunch but inconstant. And we could name them. Private Willingness is the corpulent one, the one without much on-the-job exercise, and Private Capacity is his generally gaunt and untested confederate. They oversee what goes in and what goes out of the unsecured trove of what you know, allowing in and out only what seems worthy. Endings are sudden when you slip past the guards, drop down into the musty ossuary of what you know and can’t seem to find the endings there. That’s why. Not feeling ready for the knowable heartache of ending, for example, sets us up for the prejudice, the certainty that we didn’t know about it because it was sudden and impossible to know, and not because we didn’t want to know about it.

Dying, a particular kind of ending, is a knowable thing not much known in our time. I don’t mean the day or hour of dying, though with practice and possessed of a certain burdensome gift these can be known. I mean the givenness of one’s death: that is entirely, mysteriously and calamitously knowable, and from what I’ve seen in the last few decades it isn’t much known. Someone wrote me recently and thanked me for this line in Die Wise: “You simply cannot tell from how most of us live that most of us know we will die.” And I would add now: “much less that most of us know we are dying when we are.” So, sudden death is sudden because it isn’t expected, or suspected, or in any way welcome, not because it is quick. The truth is that death is announced and pronounced, it is foretold and promised, and anointed with necessity and perfumed with purpose, a purpose that hangs suspended over the crevasse that opens between what you welcome and are comforted by on the one side and what you are given to realize and carry with you through the length of your days on the other.

This, to sound antique and continental and a bit belligerent, is all very well when we are bantering about Life over drinks or retreating in a retreat centre somewhere, but it is another thing entirely when we are dragged to the cliff edge of what seems just and merciful and knowable by something so scant in purpose that it conjures the Abyss, and offers us citizenship in Oblivion. One of those things, surely, is the suffering, and the withering unto death, of children. I devoted many pages of Die Wise to it, and I’m no more resolved or accepting of that withering now than I ever was.

Well, here may be the torment of the thing: Children are demonstrably not ‘too young to die’, no matter how often we might say such a thing. Children can as foreseeable die as the rest of us, and they do. Nor are children ‘at the beginning of their lives’, no matter their age. Children are as deeply in the fullness of their lives as some who are reading or writing these lines, perhaps in some instances more so. As many of you have heard me say over the years, children are incapable of ‘potential’, meaning that they are up until a few years before puberty incapable of calibrating the worth or the merit or the entitlement of their days according to how many days they haven’t yet lived, or won’t get to live. That particular disconsolate phantom comes to us a bit later in life, and once nestled in usually stays on for the duration.

Children’s capacity is in childhood, in not having yet learned the manner of ‘rights’, in mystification and ordinary awe, and they come to their trouble or their withering mystified and awestruck. Of course, they wish things were otherwise, especially when nursing those around them who are nursing grievance. But their example to the rest of us is not nostalgic, carried by a memory of a time less true or truer than this one. It is prehistoric, carrying a memory that what is true now has always been true, whether it was known and welcomed or not. Withering and dying children are for all this a powerful presence among us, a chance for us to get it right, a sojourn with the Gods.

There was a time when people I come from understood the withering and dying of children often as a consequence of the child’s proximity to the volatile presence of the Gods that grant us our days. They understood withering and dying children sometimes to be troubled by troubled, unsustained, unremembered ancestors. Children in the throes of afflictions we now have Greek or Latin sounding names for were once known to be in thrall to the Gods of Life and of Death, who were being crafted for deep service to life and to death by learning something of the mysteries of both. As it is, the Gods of Life and Death seem to have left us to our monolithic certainties, as perhaps have our unremembered ancestors, and we often gripe and grind in that orphanhood, free to concoct our own meaning of life and travail, utterly possessed of and by the untutored right to live, grudges at the ready.

I began writing this in the haze of interminable travel of the disembodying kind, in a departure lounge in LAX, a name which seems to raise anagram to the level of fate, bothered by a sound system so poorly achieved as to resemble a radio that can’t find a station. To make this trip I left tomorrow to get here now, such are the shenanigans forced upon us by the international date line that floats unclaimed and stateless in the Pacific. So the tone of the thing could be chalked up to fatigue. But I have this strange privilege now to be in many countries with many people forlorn and undone by their days, and I’ve also lived long enough to see the children of kith and kin wrangled by the mysteries of life, and some of them are dying now, and a few have done so, and this is what prompts me now. Sometimes at the bequest of those kith and kin, and sometimes without it, I have pleaded and made the case for these children’s lives being otherwise. And I’ve made the same case for a few of the countless ones that didn’t make it quite to their first breath. I don’t know why these things go as they do, any more than I know if the Old Gods will return to us and our abandoned ancestors might be inclined to forgiveness. What I’m counting on is that the meaning of these things is conjured and kept by how we live with them, and without them. That meaning is entrusted to us. We have things to learn about travail and endings, and children.

I end this writing sitting a few yards away from Nathalie Roy, co-conspirator of things Orphan Wisdom. She has been grinding shells into beads as I do so, thinking as she does of the children we know who are so far as I can tell being visited by the Gods of Life and Death, and petitioning on their behalf with her small, beautiful treasures. These words are my beads for now. Would that the children and their families and their peoples and Gods take them as mystified Amens.

This Mankiller Tour began eons ago, in February, with a small huddle of expats and curious Mexica, a crackling sound system and doubtful, generous Buddhists, riven pilgrims, end-of-the-road outcasts, trollers of purpose to go with their days, all of us gathered under the mantle, the flayed-open cordillera of Morellos, under the unvanquished Aztec pyramid on the cliff edge that has seen so much. Then to Mexico City, that troubled open heart of the Americas, to a shuttered room in a suite of rooms that was once home to a family of prestige and now much reduced. There were eco-anarchists, militant seekers, Buddhists again, some of certainty and some of confusion, wavering Catholics and Old World Jews and genteel kids volunteering their young days to the cause. To my agile, straining spontaneous translator and to my being troubled aloud they bent their ears, some of them, and listened and considered.

Sometime during the course of that second evening I was obliged to know something I did not seek, or did not count on: I’m in Mexico, I don’t speak Spanish, I’m talking about death and its details through a translator, and people of speckled lineage and jangled conviction are leaning in, are considering, are giving me the gift of their evening. This caravan of unlikelies has prevailed ever since, as it has wandered America. I’m not likely the best judge of it, singing inside this small disturbance, but things seem to have gained a certain momentum. For a crucial while I had a band, my name for the remarkable musician Gregory Hoskins who graced my pleas for mercy and for grace under mortal pressure with his own faithful cantos of muscular sorrow. People came, jammed doorways and stood on chairs and they lingered afterwards, unwilling it seemed to go back to a home unchanged by an unlikely evening of mortal mysteries.

Today I’m on a plane again, this time heading to lands left long ago by those whose heirs I’ve become. It isn’t a homecoming, surely not, but it’s not another place on a list of places, either. This breezy little tome I’ve written, Die Wise, was graced with a noble introduction by a denizen of England and of times gone by, name of Martin Shaw, with whom I was briefly reunited a week ago for a riotous night of elegy and lament worthy of the ages. (Keep a weather eye for a film record of that boisterous event, crafted by Ian McKenzie, that might see light later this winter.) In the spangled generosity of his Forward Mr. Shaw took me for a citizen of the Other World. And this was to my knowledge the first time I was recognized, the first time this drizzle of sorrow and love for life that is my claim for Orphan Wisdom was seen and called by name. This stirred my gratitude. I have gratitude for him personally and specifically, surely, but I’ve another gratitude that arrived in this slurry of anticipation and pause, one that rises in the departure lounge as I make my way back across the Atlantic, tracing the furrows ploughed centuries before when We Who Left, who could not afford to stay, parted ways so deeply with You Who Stayed, to become the great European fantasy of America. And Mr. Shaw wrote of we who left: “To us, when you left you became spirits. How does dying wise function when to we who stayed you are already dead?” This is surely the arche of sorrow and longing and the uprooting of the world in search of home that America has become. It is to this wonder that I am returning.

So this is the whisper inside these evenings that I propose, the murmur inside the orphan wisdom for a troubled and troubling time that I bear: that the time may be dawning now, as we glimpse the myriad endings of the order that was so strangely born, for the old ancestries to be met and claimed, that we begin finally to occupy that seat reserved for us at the groaning board in the mead hall of life by our precursors, by the Old Ones of those who may gather with me and with each other these November nights for grief, for mystery and for the sake of an orphan wisdom for these strange and stranger days that may be striving to be born. Would that we wrangle from it all a memory worthy of this story of our scattering and our coming round.

Stephen Jenkinson

To make my living, to support my farm habit, I travel. I understand now what Leonard Cohen probably meant when he said, “They don’t pay you to sing. They pay you to travel.” People who don’t travel to make their living – that would be most people, probably – might imagine these few of us gliding through airports, quaffing frequent flyer wine, rising in the departure lounge (you can’t really call that thing a lounge) at the first soothing tones of that sweet invitation extended to Star, Elite and Super Elite Guests to leave it all behind and board first, before the wheezy elders and mothers struggling with babes in arms, before anyone needing a little extra time to board. I got bumped up, once. Whatever the satiny privilege of the thing, I wouldn’t again go for it, enduring the glares from the boarding better-late-than-never economy folks, the ones I fly with. Super Elite: a strange idea, stranger than ‘some are created more equal than others’, a place where the withering of the idea of America might be more naked than usual. Super Elite: The hell of the superlative, so many consumers in a trance of accomplishment. Maybe Super Elite is a mandatory overture to ‘And the first shall be last’, and as reliable a sign of the end times as the times require. Imagine there even being a Super Elite. Imagine trying to get there, and stay there. Maybe that’s what the idea of America has become.

The road has probably always brought out the best and the worst in people: hucksters and shysters preying on mendicants and lost souls, yes, but innkeepers too stooping to rash and guileless generosities at the appearance of wanderers or pilgrims or single parents at their door. Rumi they say advised each guest house-keeper of the soul to keep the door unlocked, ajar even, and admit all. It might be hard on the furniture and the bottom line, but he’s confident that the entire human circus won’t likely stay in your house, even should you invite them to do so.

And there are sobriquets to this effect, good ones, that advise extending a kind of radical hospitality to all ‘lest you be treating an angel unawares’, which is a wise bit of insurance in the business plan of life. Well, the truth is that should there be such a thing as angels (I am persuaded) you will treat one or two unawares, given the heavy disguise the road tends to impose on them. Likely too it is, if occasional, that you will be that angel, unawares, prompting that table fellowship with your wandering. Imagine being an angel unawares. Given how desecration prevails, and how the Gods like dormant seeds have wisely gone to ground to await more welcoming times, perhaps that’s the most common kind of angel these days.

I am in the midst – I hope I am somewhere in the midst, but perhaps not quite yet – of a self initiated teaching swath prompted by the sudden and unheralded appearance on St. Patrick’s Day of this year of a breezy little tome I wrote called Die Wise. I’ve taken to calling it The Mankiller Tour, for grueling reasons you could probably guess.  Airport food has on occasion looked doable. I’ve crossed frontiers so many times, and appear to have achieved an age deemed innocuous to national security by those engaged in its protection, that I am often expedited, thrust to the front of the interminable X-ray lines, mistaken for someone super elite in inconsequence. I do intend consequence, but I haven’t corrected anyone on this matter. I am overlooked by the ruffians charged with protecting aviation. I am invited to participate in the current level of Alertness (yellow as of my last trip, if you are curious), and seduced regularly to report any suspicious activity I see, though I haven’t succumbed. I find those announcements – how they enthrone suspicion as the crescendo of good sense, self interest and patriotism – suspicious, but discretion and a desire not to blow my cover has restrained me from reporting it.

I have a number of road stories, and the one I’m thinking of this morning is the extraordinary privilege extended to me to appear in the midst of peoples’ ordinary lives as a kind of guest provocateur from afar. I am aided and abetted by the kindest of community organizers in each of the places I go. In a hand full of countries elsewhere, and in the several countries inside my own, I have been granted encounters with the ‘everyday’ of many peoples’ strivings and cares. It is an honour of the elevated kind, and it affords me a kind of radical education in the way it is for which I will always and gladly be the debtor.

I have learned by now that each of these places has a Book. It might be the same Book everywhere, for all I know. I haven’t seen it and don’t expect to, but so many people are quoting from it that the Book’s presence seems beyond dispute. Literate cultures ascribe an authority to certain of their books (and often to books in general) that they rarely ascribe to anything else. People quote the Book authoritatively and often and urgently. The Book itself has taken on an oracular, numinous hue in our time. You can tell that from the certainty that swells when the quotations circulate. And it seems to have a kind of integrity only cultures in thrall to the scribal and to the apocryphal bestow, and the places that invite me to appear in their midst are such places. Given how compelled people are by what it prescribes, I’ve come to call it the Book of Supposed To.

The Book of Supposed To underwrites the moral order of our days here in the dominant culture of North America, such as it is. Unlike my own practice, the Book of Supposed To doesn’t waste time describing things as they are, but goes directly to what you could call the mandate of heaven, the ‘how it all must be if anything or anyone half way decent is in charge’. Here’s the surprise: This minor book of mine seems to exert a kind of provocative, lunar draw upon that larger tome that I neither conjured nor anticipated. As the various moons do to the maternal orbs around which they hover, so Die Wise seems to prompt the Book of Supposed To. I have found that when I begin to talk about dying, about what has become of it in our time, the tolerance for any faithful witness to it isn’t broad or indulgent. I can tell the intolerance is out there, because at every gathering allegedly devoted to the project of articulating an orphan wisdom of dying I am asked instead to elaborate from the Book, to finger the bad guys and reward the good guys, to come across with the blueprint for what we deserve, to open up the current arrangement to all these ‘rights’ – to be pain-free, suffering-free, burden-free, awareness-free, death-free – that the Book of Supposed To carves out for us. Some of the more popular claims​:

‘Kids aren’t supposed to die.’ ‘I am supposed to get to vote on anything that concerns me.’ ‘It’s not supposed to hurt.’ ‘I’m supposed to be okay.’ ‘You’re supposed to live as if you’re dying.’ ‘It’s my life and I’ll do what I want.’ ‘I’m supposed to be able to die how and when I want.’

In no time at all these gatherings are prodded to become staging areas for the demand to live, for exercising the right of utter self determination unto death, for being served an unbridled range of choices, for a kind of moral and ethical aloofness that masquerades as freedom and is untethered to anything beyond the antediluvian Self that this Book is dedicated to sustaining. There is nothing – and certainly nothing in Die Wise – that offers a comparable strategy for certainty that the Book of Supposed To is supposed to be. Though I haven’t really been ambushed by any of this, I admit that I’m surprised by how close to the surface it is in every place that grants me an audience.

So if you were read to from this Book as a young child (I certainly was), or if you are reading to children from it now in the belief that it will hold them in good stead later, then it isn’t likely that Die Wise will help shore up any of the ‘supposed to’s’ that won’t stand up to a little scrutiny. If I’m honest, most of the ideas in it will probably be disturbing. That’s what most of the testimonials I receive say about it: poetic when it is at its best, yes, but a hard read … and disturbing. And to fess up: in this book I’m offering nothing like The Book of Supposed To offers by way of a map to what you deserve. It more has the tone of a manifesto, an account of what is asked of you in a troubled time. It’s a book about dying, after all, so it isn’t surprising that it ends, more or less. But it may be surprising how it ends: as a supposed to-free zone. And Die Wise, like dying itself, proceeds as if we’re adults, elders in training, people who will soon enough, if not already, be needed by people half our age to stand and deliver. And should you by now be an elder in training: This isn’t a book I wrote for you. It is a book I wrote to you.

So I just wanted you to know that. Some of you have been very kind in your notes to me about Die Wise. I’m very grateful. I’m told too that the zany Marketplace of Attitude which is the Amazon book review includes a few offerings pro and con Die Wise. And there’s the Facebook (gads, another book), a running commentary of approval and disapproval, which I know the Orphan Wisdom site dallies with. I don’t want anyone thinking that I’ve got the goods on this dying business, or that I have a bunch of new supposed to’s to add to the mix. Interviewers try to pry those out of me, but I’ve run out. I’m down to questions now, and not much else.

If the Mankiller Tour doesn’t live up to its name and against the current odds I am spared and end up in your town with this book in tow before year’s end, I will without real justification probably lean on you for a little of that table fellowship, lost soul or mendicant or pilgrim or torch bearer that I am, and offer a bit of mystery of the human scaled – the mortal – in return. I hope that will do for now.

All honour to those who’ve so far made a place for this mortal wonder, and to those who may yet do so,

Stephen Jenkinson