Orphan Wisdom - Stephen Jenkinson

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.​ All upcoming public events are listed here. Learn more about all upcoming public events here. Should you be interested in hosting a talk where you live, contact us.

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.

At some risk to the standing of our little website, as it holds on for dear life to a bit of asteroid out there in the blogosphere, I have in print and in person warned often about the looming hazards the internet has in store for literacy: cultural and spiritual and moral and written literacy. Years ago, I bent my foreboding to the point of stress fracture when I considered and finally bowed to the necessity and apparent fiscal wisdom of having a website at all. I figured then, and many times after, that that was as far as I’d ever go down that disembodied ghost road paved and maintained by the grey-glow square eyed cyclops sitting in the corner.

But, change being what it is, and obsolescence being what it ever is, I’ve now been obliged to consider the whole affair’s intent and direction and design. Here’s why: It is more than clear that the internet is already the de facto belief system of more people than not. More people than not are reading what I write on a screen the size of their palms. One consequence: I’m asked to consider writing ever more briefly, to contend with the little screen’s intolerance for anything much longer than can be seen at a glance. It won’t be long, it seems, before attention span will be dictated more or less entirely by the visual field of a personal device that can fit effortlessly into the breast pocket.

Sounds perhaps like the fretting of a dinosaur wondering if all that asteroid dust in the darkening sky is something to be concerned about, if it isn’t something more than an interesting change to the ‘same old same old’ skyline? Here’s the thing, though. I’ve had the privilege of travelling all over the world in the last decade and a half on the strength of what concerns me and what troubles me, much in the manner of a stand up comedian. And what I’ve seen is this: Everywhere that these personalized/personalizing devices have gone (and that is, increasingly, everywhere) they seem to have already changed the etiquette of person to person behaviour in those places, fundamentally. In other words, there is something in the design of these things and in the behaviour compliance they enforce that subverts local custom to such a degree that they are in the course of one technological generation conjuring a ‘smart device’ social and aesthetic moral order that is already in the process of fraying any cultural fabric that was there before them. That device is a more ruthlessly effective missionary than any door-to-door religion pitch-man that you have ever met or ever will meet. In support of this fret, three little, true stories, stories that really happened.

1. Some years ago, one of my kids was visiting me on the farm. These were early days for the so-called smart phone (how can there already be early days for something that just happened?). I’d never seen one, and I wasn’t clear that it was in fact a phone at all, and so I was mystified by the wild claims of photographic and communicative/interactive nirvana attributed to these lithe little packages. We were in the first hour of our visit, it’d been months since the last one, and the news of the day and of the heart occupied us. Obeying (I know now) a silent and unseen summons, my daughter raised her hand, palm facing out, and in pantomime fashion bid me wait a moment while she answered an incoming call on that device in her pocket. She was, I would say, only vaguely solicitous of my understanding of the matter. Certainly there was no hesitation in taking the call, no embarrassment, no apparent disturbance to her understanding of what we were doing sitting there together. The etiquette was clear, to her: I should – and would – understand the demands of the marketplace, the automatic, unquestioned and instant accessibility alleged by the device, the utter dread of missing a call, of missing out on the next thing. Because the one who’s not there has precedence, and ascendency, over the one who is there.

I’d never faced that social no-man’s-land before, as forlorn as that might sound. So, I did wait, though the sense I had that I was in the sulphurous presence of the tech-orchestrated moral near-future was palpable. And then she was off the phone, ready to resume our parent/child bon ami, breezy even. But I wasn’t. As my daughter searched for the thread of our unravelled conversation, I frankly risked it all. Assuming the voice of doom and destruction, I said to her: “Never again.” After some understandable recoil, she agreed: Never again. And to her credit, it hasn’t happened since. Not with her, at least.

2. I’m in Ciudad Oaxaca, as busy a place as I’m likely to stand anymore. I’m a pulmonary refugee now, on the lamb from winter cold, and it is mysteriously working out, slowing the tempo of my bronchial demise, I’m guessing. We’ve done a screening of Griefwalker, the first ever time with Spanish subtitles, and the discussion afterwards was superb and generous. The next day I’m feeling vaguely victorious and unguarded. We are in a grabado workshop/studio, the old and noble and politically articulate art form of wood block printing prevalent in this town.

There are half a dozen young men pulling a very large print. The artist is barking instructions, there’s an air of tension, expectation and devotion to the craft, everyone wanting this one-off moment to go well, and the room is crowded. Off the street and into this array walks a middle aged man with a camera. With vague hand gestures he’s asking permission to shoot the action. It isn’t clear that anyone has gestured back, ‘Yes’. These days that is close enough to permission, for some. So he squeezes himself into the action, shooting from every angle, dumping somebody’s stuff off a chair and climbing on it to get the money shot. Every once in a while he seems to point the camera in our direction – we’re well out of the way of the workers – but then puts it down again, maybe checking his f-stops, I’m thinking (if there are f-stops anymore).

Print pulled, the young men make their way to the ante-room of the studio. His reluctant subjects now gone, camera guy wheels around and makes to shoot us instead. My wife tells him, quickly, firmly, clearly and unmistakably, “No pictures, please.” He doesn’t desist. She tells him again, and he, with more than a little belligerence, demands, “Why?” My tolerance is gone now. I step between them. I point to my face. I say, “I own this. That’s why.” And he, without missing a beat, all self assured and sneering and unperturbed, says: “Really? Are you sure?”

3. We’re in Chiapas, lucky to be there. It is the anniversary of the unvanquished Zapatista rising, and things are a little tense outside the capital city. Brigands are using the circumstances to hold people up on the highways, and worse: that’s what we’re being told. We take a collectivo to a smaller town, arrive without incident in front of a church of immense scale, dating to the same decade as the Entrada, Cortes’ invasion of Old Mexico. We’re properly warned in writing: No pictures, no recording in the church, on pain of certain and serious punishment. Of course, I think. Inside, real old-time religion. The indigenous people have taken almost every Spanish Catholic attribute away, and it’s a pine scented, altar-less profusion of family-made ceremonies and offerings down on the tile floor, hundreds of candles amidst the boughs, a remarkable privilege to behold, a wonder that they mysteriously do not keep to themselves.

We’re outside the church now, and I notice an older native mother selling chocolate and a kind of biscuit. She’s glad enough to make the sale, makes a bit of small talk with us in Spanish, surely her second language. All the while, beside her, a teenage daughter makes no eye contact, doesn’t look up, doesn’t stir from her utter single minded devotion to the smart phone she has her head bowed to. You could say it’s no big deal. You could say that if these women’s culture resisted Cortes and the Catholic Church and is still here, there’s nothing much to whatever challenge that gizmo brings. But there was something about the young woman’s apparent willingness to be gone inside the thing that was, to me, hauntingly, harrowingly and instantly familiar. She was a global citizen and glad of it, and her mother was not and would never be. And that was the little canyon opening between them. In another generation, her daughter’s children – if she has any – might have more in common with my daughter’s children – if she has any – than with her own people, thanks to that globalizing little device that will soon enough be the right of everyone to have and to hold.

So, no, I don’t think any of us have seen anything as implacably, deviously capable of insinuating itself into the social and intellectual and personal creases or our lives without raising so much as a tremor of concern from its millions of acolytes as these devices (and I like the metallic, bloodless, conscience-free sound of that word to describe them). As it seems already, more of us are talking to each other through these things than not. Or soon enough that will be so. Shortly after that, more of us will be talking to them than talking to each other, probably in the same way that more and more people are preferring the companionship of small domesticated animals to that of other cantankerous, obstreperous, unruly humans.

And its already true that if you go out of your house and take to the street, for a walk, you have forsaken any previous claim you may once have made to anything like privacy, or to the ownership of your likeness and your face, and you’ve volunteered to be a bit player in the penny opera productions of the selfie brigade, for whom everything and everyone is fodder and fair game. Ask permission? They already have permission. That personal device in their hands granted it to them some time ago. You being out there, on the periphery of their lives, granted it to them. The change is so utter now that nobody needs a camera with them to have that entitlement, that access to you. It’s permanent. You are on-call now. So am I.

These are meagre things, you might think. Small stuff. Nothings. Nothing to prompt serious doubt about the near future of the species, surely. Well, I agree about the ‘nothing’ part. There’s nothing there, a lot of it. And it looks like that nothing is increasing, and that more and more people are welcoming that nothing into their lives and their ways, gladly, the way naive people welcome a thief into their house.

I’m old fashioned, for now. Soon enough, if I’m spared, I’ll be minus the ‘fashioned’ part: just old. I like the face to face of life. I believe in it. I love the teaching gigs. I love the farm apprenticeship we did last year. We could do it again. I love the Orphan Wisdom School. I love the Nights of Grief and Mystery we did last fall. So we’ll do them again this year in Ireland and Scotland and England, and in Canada and the U.S. I love the band I did them with. I love that you come to these things, that we get to lay eyes on each other, and hear each other. More often than not we threaten, for a while, to get that old village feel going. And life seems good again, and things are possible. If there’s any ‘liking’ to be had, any ‘friending’, it should be had there, it seems.

I tried to make this letter to you fit onto that little screen, so as to not ask too much of you. But I didn’t try very hard, or for very long, I guess, and it didn’t work out. I thought about you, and the thing grew. I’m told that more and more of you are giving up on these notes, and unsubscribing, walking away, mainly because everything here is too long, takes too long, asks too much. To the rest of you, the ones with staying power: Here’s to longhand. Here’s to duration, and to the time it takes to linger for a while in the marketplace of what’s left of our mutual life. Here’s to the wander, and the saunter, and to lingering over life. And to reading something over, twice at least.

Stephen Jenkinson Founder of Orphan Wisdom

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?

Gregory: Suzanne.

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.

GH: Exactly.

SJ: That dark road language is no joke.

GH: No.

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.

GH: Completely.

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.

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.


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

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’.

I have lived long enough …

No. You don’t want to leave a sentence like that, sitting all by itself, without a back end. Unless you really mean that you have indeed – as of that moment – lived long enough (and writing it down in an email seems a lurid anti-climax to the allotment), then you want to push through the pause that drops in after “enough”. It’s not a bad thing to hear yourself say, though. For practice. So that the real thing doesn’t catch you unawares, as if you’d no way of knowing.

You do have multiple ways of knowing, as do I. All the limits and all the frailties, and all the endings, for example, and all the little camouflaged mercies that at first seem brutal and arbitrary, sending some reaching for a refresher course on the Serenity Prayer, are ways of knowing. Deciding that you don’t know about endings, that you’ve no way of knowing or caring about them, is a way of knowing. I’ve had many people in their fifties over the years tell me that they haven’t known anyone who’s died. Which is straight up impossible. It’s a confession that they’ve kept their distance, so as not to sorrow too much. It doesn’t sound like it, but that’s a way of knowing, too.

Sudden endings are for amateurs. They’re understandable, but they’re not really how it is. “How it is” is that we have plenty of notice that our corner of the enterprise will not last, cannot last. It isn’t kept from us. Just because we might duck some unwanted thing doesn’t mean that it is hiding from us. The “when” and the “how”: now, those tend to be kept from us until five minutes to our own personal midnight or so. And there’s mercy in that, I’d say. What do you imagine you’d do with the information, should you find yourself to be up closer to the front of the line than the rest of us? Most of the people who’ve spoken about this with me imagine that they’d begin firing on all cylinders, bucket-list style, crossing off the Big Doings. Well, I have seen what “knowing the time ahead of time” does to people, an awful lot of them, and based on the panic and the sense of betrayal that showed up I’d say that nobody really needs to know more than they already do about all this, and that more information probably won’t make most of us more capable. It’s like global warming that way: more information won’t make it more true. We have enough information, more than enough, to plot a course towards engaged, passionate, sorrowful sanity. We have more than enough information to oblige us to behave as if there are generations to come that will need some example of grace under considerable pressure when it’s their turn.

Anyway, I intended to begin with this: I’ve lived long enough to see the day when dying and death has become – what else could you call it? – sexy. There’s a bit of rock star status that gathers around dying people these days, and around their helpers. People press in to be closer to them, as if dying people know more about life because they’re dying than the rest of us who aren’t dying right now do. I don’t think I saw a terminal diagnosis confer sagacity and a measuredness not otherwise practiced by people before they were “dying people”. It tweaked what was already there, intensified it often, sometimes to an unendurable degree.

Would-be helpers, advocates and death-trade workers are banging on the bars and the walls to get in. Not everywhere, of course. Not everybody. But enough to notice it. There are alternative death conferences all over that are keen on going mainstream. Somebody should bear in mind what happens when ardent and revolutionary things go mainstream. They tend to disappear. Or they become what the next round of revolutionaries are keen on bringing down. But going mainstream is enormously compelling, enchanting. It’s hard to resist: all those new chances to be heard, to get the message out, to change the discourse, to be an opinion leader. So don’t be surprised when dying has become passe, and boring. That’s what’s coming, I’d say. Maybe the spotlight will settle on elders next, and elderhood will get “the treatment” for a while, and legions will line up for their elder papers, and the whole business will go mainstream – sexy, in an unsought sort of way.

Sexy isn’t very sexy anymore. The dominant culture has done sexy by now. Done it to death, you could say, so that it’s become white noise wallpaper. The part of the culture’s adrenal apparatus called “sexy” seems mostly spent at this point. So it’s being politicized beyond recognition at this very moment – another sign that there’s not much left to wring from it, for now.

That’s an arresting thought, if you give it a chance to have its way with you. That’s how much sustained attention to detail the public discourse seems interested in. There’s only so much novelty you can bring to the daily architecture of our lives, only so much notoriety. After that, well, the hypesters and the hipsters move on to the next attraction.

And that’s when you can begin deciding where you intend to live out your realizations, your discoveries, your awakenings. When things become ordinary again, and the glare is gone and the heat is off, maybe (as Nick Cave put it) God is in the house. And that would be very good news. Or no news at all to those who’ve made their way through the squalls of notice and blame and trending and made landfall in the land of an ordinary day.

Where there could be grief there’s rancour. That’s often true. Where there could be mystery, there’s conviction abounding, and opinioneering. That’s true too, and it isn’t easy to live through. Here’s one antidote: imagine that ‘ordinary’ is the proper place for sex, and for death and for elderhood, and for all of the other sacred things. Imagine that ‘ordinary’ is where mystery lingers now, waiting to see if we’re willing to learn it again.

Imagine too that the sacred and holy things and all the Godly things are frail and vulnerable in their way, and that they won’t endure come what frigging may, and that they have a survival instinct, the same kind entrusted to all living things, and that their way of enduring is to go to the unGodly and the non sacred and unholy places to hide out for a while, waiting for the madnesses to spend themselves. In troubled times, maybe it is that the the Gods move to the suburbs, to the blight, to the ordinary places, to the places unbecoming. If any of that is so, then maybe the ordinariness of love making and of sorrow, the ordinariness of aging if you do and dying when you do is where you go to find the Lords of Life.

Recently, filmmaker Ian MacKenzie was awarded a $50K grant through the community platform Storyhive to produce the short film ‘Lost Nation Road.’ This 20 minute documentary will follow Stephen and Gregory for the western leg of their Nights of Grief and Mystery Tour, capturing life on the road and magic along the way.

For years, Stephen Jenkinson led the palliative care department at a major Canadian hospital. Sitting at the deathbeds of over 1000 people, he discovered again and again “a wretched anxiety” around death. He recognized this death phobia it is not a personal issue, but a symptom of a larger cultural absence, including the loss of elders. Soon after Stephen and his wife Nathalie opened the Orphan Wisdom School – a learning house for “elders-in-training.” This fall, he’s heading on the road one more time, alongside veteran Canadian musician Gregory Hoskins for the ‘Nights of Grief and Mystery’ tour.

LOST NATION ROAD weaves a compelling case for what happened to elders in this culture, the consequence on youth today, and what can be done for the generations to come. Learn more at lostnationroad.com

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To celebrate, he’s released this short ‘ORIGINS’ which shares how Stephen and Gregory first made contact, and decided to collaborate for the tour. See all upcoming tour dates and buy tickets online here.

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