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.


Dec 6, 2019


I’ve been asked hundreds of times to sign personal copies of Come of Age, and I’m glad to do it. More than glad. I see to it that each inscription is very close to prayer, outright. Not always a prayer for something, mind you. Rarely that. Just as often it is a prayer to Something, on account of Something, for the sake of Something, because of Something. This is the affliction and the habituation of an animist: it’s always Something. Always. I’m trying to make the prayer be proof of Something, proof to Something, proof that not everyone in a troubled time went nuts, went underground, went over the edge.

And I find myself thinking about dust when I think about age. I often wrote in these prayerful inscriptions of the dust of the old road, rising. Dust, the most apt, the most able, the most faithful rendering of what the passing of time renders. Dust: not the evocation of futility, but the cradle and grave of all meaning, all purpose, all intent. Dust: the sign that everything that’s been is, winnowed and rendered, still here, the ground of now.

I initially intended to begin this note by observing that the dust has just begun to settle on the empty luggage in the hall, the not-yet-sorted road clothes in the corner of the room, the guitar case leaning against the wall, the clutch of receipts and invoices I faithfully collected on the tour and did not collate, yet to be readied for the tax man … and me. The dust has begun to settle on me, too. It’s a sign that I’ve been somewhere – many somewheres – and that I’ve gathered news and allegations and signs as I’ve made my way across the continent this fall.

This time out I’ve been entrusted with proof. I’ve proof now that many are roused by the prospect of Mystery unencumbered by clumsy explanation. I’ve proof that many are unwilling to submit themselves any longer to the habits of cynicism, misanthropy, ennui. I’ve proof that a cabal of poet musician pirates will lay aside the ties of home and bills and old promises of ‘I’ll-be-there-come what may’ and take up the summons to appear out on the Dark Road for the sake of wrestling monsters, for the sake of a better day for those not yet among us. They even took up the discipline and the discredited dignity of self adornment, at considerable personal expense in currency of a foreign realm, for the sake of the Nights, and the Grief, and the Mystery, and looking ever so good.

Well, they say that the gathering of dust is the sign of settling. But we here in the Orphan Wisdom corner of the world did not receive that memo, that style directive. So our dust is the sign of us gathering our wits about us, learning what’s there to learn from the last tour or two, taking the temper of the road, giving the band much-needed r/r. The brain trust here is in heavy cogitation. I’m tired, but I’m not tired enough. We are rolling the knuckle bones of our fate, probably better known to you as doing due diligence on the likelihood of touring our asses off in 2020, in differing permutations of the Band. We recorded some of the live shows from this fall, and we’re listening close for signs of another life. There are rumours of a new book. There’s something in the air – dust – about new classes here or there. The Office is firing on all cylinders. Soon enough there’ll be announcements here about our allegations about what is to be in the coming year, if we are spared and have our way.

For now, though, on behalf of the Office and the Band, in the name of the Nights we were granted, for the sake of the sudden camaraderie we were afforded out there on the Lost Nation Road: bundles of gratitude for giving us a chance to live out why we on this end were born and spared through the slings and arrows of childhood and adolescence and early adulthood, when so many were not; grace upon you for summoning your care-worn give-a-shit, and rising. And to those of you not yet met and gathered: we are as stallions and mares, kicking at the stall, looking for loose boards to push through or lumber over, on our way again out of the incandescent habits of the hearth and out onto the Dark Road.

All willing, we’ll see you there soon enough,

Stephen Jenkinson


Orphan Wisdom are now in the planning stages for what is quickly becoming a Nights of Grief & Mystery World Tour, and we are gathering word of serious and early interest from people who’d like to host an event in their home place. Stephen has called this work “writing a love letter to your community”. For 2020, we’re planning tours in April for North America, in June for the UK, Ireland, and Europe in September-October for North America and in November for Australia & New Zealand. Please be in touch soon if you’d like to host an event next year.

Thank you to everyone who helped raise $749.70 for RAVEN Trust and their work raising legal defence funds to assist Indigenous Peoples who enforce their rights and title to protect their traditional territories.

RAVEN Trust, through their public education programs, collaborates with Indigenous Peoples to eliminate environmental racism and foster a greater understanding of indigenous rights and governance. They are a registered charity in Canada and a 501(c) tax exempt organization in the United States.

100% of the funds raised from the discounted sale of Stephen Jenkinson’s ‘Come of Age – Reading & Reportage Public Talk’ over the month of October went toward the donation to RAVEN Trust.

The funds are now on their way to RAVEN Trust for use in their work.

Thank you!

“If we could , you know we would; We’d accompany each of you to your door this evening. We’d see to it that the key still worked, that the door still opened that it was still your house. We’d close the door behind you but before we did, with your kind permission, we would kiss our lips, kiss you on the head, and bless you. But all we have is this.” – Stephen Jenkinson

This is your last chance to savour Stephen Jenkinson, Gregory Hoskins and the band over the last final dark roads of the 2019 Nights of Grief & Mystery Tour. Just a few more dates left on the tour. Get tickets now.


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Sunday – New York City: You write those three words down, in that order, and there’s a feeling of having written a tight, picaresque novella. They have that weight, no doubt. They do for me, and I don’t favour the place. It has always been too much for me, all at once. But to play there: I’ll admit it on behalf of the band, was and remains a BIG FRIGGING DEAL. This is largely because I have a strong sense that everyone there HAS SEEN IT ALL, BABY, SEVENTEEN TIMES.

So, if at the end of one of these most unlikely of evenings, undertaken in a speakeasy of previous times/now an off off Broadway atmospheric and odoriferous black box owned and operated by what is surely a bejeweled, silver cane-wielding aristocrat of a failed city state of yesteryear, the crowd’s generosity of spirit alive in their laughter, alive in their silences rises, and they rise en masse to bless you as you take leave of them … well, then, it seems you have truly stood and delivered, and served the Muses their portion, and kept to the covenantal jangle of the bardic road life.

And we shook that monkey of last year’s NYC audio debacle off our backs. Mercy prevailed.

Tuesday – Pittsburgh: An eight hour bus ride down the highway to a lapsed and former Slavic Cathedral (I know. We did put ‘NO CHURCHES’ in the contract. Nobody seems to read the fine print. Myself included.), now one of the craziest, most seductive and tricked out high tech venues I’ve ever heard tell of. A three story high vaulted mahogany ceiling, Byzantine tiles set in the walls, spectacular Oaxacan-style brickwork, moody lighting, a green room where the priest once prepared for mass. A few ghosts from the Old World, wondering what became of their heirs. Grief and Mystery, alright.

Now, perhaps you’ve made rash but entirely necessary promises to yourself as your days have gone by. Vows, even. And if you lived through the eighties, those promises might have included something like this: “No matter what, I’ll never do a music video. Never, no matter what.” If you did, we have that in common. I had no reason to make such a vow, no lifestyle choice, no skill that would ever lift that strange vow to the realm of possibility or likelihood. But in truth, back in the day, I’d watched enough of those crude novelties – added up, whole days of my lifetime that I’ll never get back – that the vow at least made some kind of moral or artistic sense.

So you know what I’m going to tell you now. An hour before show time last night, the Grief and Mystery ensemble is on stage for a three-camera video shoot of various takes on what we do. At first it seemed like a record, a kind of archive thing, like recording a live show. But there was just enough ‘lights/camera/action’ to the business to give me the bends, morally or artistically speaking. Mr. Hoskins (‘Hoss’, we might come to call him), the dervish of detail in such moments, drove the film crew to fits of precision, focus and unwavering technical prowess, himself calling for retake after retake. With patrons for the evening’s show already lining up outside and looking through the stained glass for a glimpse of the shenanigans, the band hit their mark. They were tight, model musical professionals. I blew my lines several times, ludicrous because I wrote and crafted all of them some years ago, and the order and the cadence of them were mine, and barring neurodegenerative disarray should have come to me easily. But I’m no actor. That much self understanding was renewed.

Fifty minutes later its time for ‘Ladies and Gentlemen …’, and we reach into the mortal depths once more, and we believe in these strange nights. And we earn our keep. Tears and applause enough, and enough ribaldry from the Steel City crowd, and three hours later we are sipping smokey whiskey with the owners and the local organizers in the emptied hall, all of us beginning to lie with alarming and escalating confidence about the epic edges of our lives, and for a while, as the Old Man, the patron saint of this operation unawares, so properly put it: The whole damn place goes crazy twice. And its once for the devil. And its once for Christ.

Stephen Jenkinson Founder of Orphan Wisdom

Get tickets for the Nights of Grief & Mystery Tour.

To keep apprised of the band’s trans-continental saunter, see The Dark Road Diary.

Stephen Jenkinson is a Harvard educated theologian, culture activist, educator, and creator and principal instructor of the Orphan Wisdom School.

For years he headed the counselling team of Canada’s largest home-based palliative care programme and he was assistant professor at a prominent medical school. Working with hundreds of dying people and their families, caregivers, nurses, doctors and social workers he encountered the deep death phobia and grief illiteracy that exists in the West. This motivated him to redefine what it means to live, and die well.

He’s the author of several books including: How It All Could Be, Money and the Soul’s Desires, the award-winning Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul, and Come of Age: The Case of Elderhood in a Time of Trouble. He’s also the subject of the National Film Board of Canada documentary, Griefwalker, a lyrical, poetic portrait of his work with dying people.

Most recently, he has been performing his Nights of Grief & Mystery Tour, a rich and powerfully nuanced evening woven together by deep storytelling, wondering and music, to sold-out venues across three continents.

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London Real is LIVE with Stephen Jenkinson, the Storyteller, Teacher and Author of Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul

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In this interview, Justin Bonnet comes to Stephen with his worries and angst around politics and climate change. Stephen gives counsel on the paralysis and ennui that can follow being attentive to the times we are in, and how the responses of misanthropy and self-hatred and withdrawing from your work in the world are iterations of self-hatred, not solutions.

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Interview Transcript

JL: Stephen, thank you so much for taking this time, I know you’ve just finished another interview and I greatly appreciate you taking the time here and I’ve been sat the last couple of hours in mild terror not knowing quite what to ask or how to begin.

SJ: Mild terror is manageable, Justin.

JL: Haha, it’s ok. It occurs to me that this mild terror is not unfamiliar and many of my friends in the UK have been in deeper anxiety for the past couple of years, what’s happening with brexit and you are shortly to come to our shores with the nights of grief and mystery tour as well. And I know from having attended in 2017 that it largely draws from your experience in your palliative work and yet there’s something deeply, it’s troubling but a very nourishing kind of trouble that breaks open the doors of wonder, or something like that, the stripping away of certainty. But there’s something very magical, that’s an over used word, but I’m struggling to find words, that happens in these nights. And maybe we’re just all very jaded and misanthropic and anxious and fed up and not knowing what to do and it’s almost half way through spring and I haven’t yet seen any bees and this is terrifying me on an almost daily basis, whenever I remember, I haven’t seen any bees yet, I have seen plenty of bee friendly plants and yet no bees, and this isn’t a question but maybe to start somewhere…

SJ: It’s something I could respond to though, if you’d like. Well you see, first of all it’s no news to anyone that we’re in a time now of a kind of uncharted degree and rapidity of change. Now the word change is a kind of neutral word, it simply suggests movement, but I think we know that it’s not just movement we’re talking about, we’re talking about a kind of rapid diminishment, and it cuts across a lot of the old boundaries, certainly cuts across national boundaries and, you know the weather is everybody’s sky, you could say. The changes are not, I don’t think, even principally ecological anymore, that’s changed itself in the last little while. Though I pretend no authority or awareness of the detail of what you folks are going through and what it means to you, but, you know, as a friendly outsider, I can certainly make this observation, that change is costly and we’re starting to pay and there’s just no diminishing that. And I think it’s the responsibility of people who will not live to see any strident corrective surgery or measures, I include myself in that number, it’s incumbent upon us, you know, to testify to the facts that things are changing in large measure because of the unthinkable ways in which we’ve come to the world in the last fifty, seventy five years, you could go back, but it’s accelerated during the course of my lifetime.

And, well, that’s what grown ups know, grown ups know that there’s such a thing as there’s consequence attached to action. And regardless of whether you intended it, or voted for it or whatever, it is the mark of being a citizen, in a relatively open or vaguely democratic country, mine, yours, it’s a condition of citizenry, that we testify as accurately and faithfully as we can to the circumstances as we see them. And to the extent that we can abandon, more or less permanently the instinct to find the bad guy, to attribute all of this change to, to recognise that first of all there’s blame enough to go round, there’s bad guys galore. That’s a given, but this is not a grown up orientation to life. A grown up orientation towards life is to realise that you may not have been in on the current regime and it’s establishment, but there’s no question at all that you have lived off the avails of it, nonetheless.

So it’s not a matter of guilt, but it is a matter of consequence. And grown ups traffic in consequence, is how I would put it. So the beautiful thing about consequence is that it leads you to certain fundamental considerations that might otherwise escape you when things are going well. I’ve never seen anyone take the opportunity when their personal life is going well to stop and look in the rear view mirror, or look through the windscreen and really begin to contemplate deeply what’s to be and how it has come to be what it is. Why? Well, because things going well is it’s own reward, it doesn’t prompt questioning. If things go desperately off the rails, there’s not a lot of questioning that prompts either, because of the desperation, the despair, the low grade terror, and lots of other reasons that seem to discount any upside to thinking about this deeply, which leads you to ask the obvious question, when’s the right time to engage deeply unwelcome, deeply inconvenient considerations and wonderings? The answer is, if it was left up to us, we probably wouldn’t do it.

So change, among other things, is a kind of harbinger and it says to you, it whispers one word and it is “now”, and we don’t get a vote and that is what the condition of being awake fundamentally comes down to. The condition of being awake has nothing to do with the opposite of being asleep or slumber or illusion. The condition of being awake, the word says it plainly, it means “of, or pertaining to the web of consequences that fans out behind everything you did, everything that was done in your name, everything that you didn’t do and maybe ought to have done, etc”. And, you know, this web of consequence is part of our belonging.

And, although there may not be an appetite for that, right out of the gate, something like the Nights of Grief and Mystery show that we do. It establishes a kind of grown up scaled appetite for the real thing, and the real thing turns out not to traffic in comfort, the real thing tends to traffic in wakefulness, instead. And I for one would trade a hundred hours of being reassured for a moment of genuine lucidity where the question of how it has come to be as it is. It isn’t a question of personal style or personal inclination, it’s a question of a willingness to see something broader than that which benefits you or diminishes you personally. So, it’s not much of a, huh, it’s not much of a promise to imagine that such an evening as we propose to bring to the UK, traffics in awakening of this kind, it’s not much of a crowd pleaser. But maybe this is not for everyone, maybe it’s for people whose understanding of what it means to be citizens and what it means to be grown ups now asks more of them than it grants them.

JL: There’s something about the evenings that brings the world and everything of importance about it into sharp relief in my experience, almost a turning of the ring on a telescope to bring the world into focus. Not in the context of global politics, just life.

SJ: Although you could take out the word just out of that sentence and you’d hit the money.

JL: Yeah, right, and that seems non partisanal with regards to any particular political stance and yet I again on an almost daily basis, sometimes multiple times a day, seem to be confounded with what seems a very obvious thing about life, that there are some deeply untrustworthy people in very high positions of power and authority. And it does seem to be that the populous is cast very broadly into two camps, those who, from my perspective, believe the words that come out of these peoples mouths and those who don’t and are deeply uneasy. And to make it more complicated, the other group have similar feelings about the kind of people who I would look to as leaders. So I take fully what you mean about not making bad guys out of people and yet it seems that there are some very bad actors, psychopaths even, pulling strings and maybe that’s just how it is and there’s nothing we can do about it right now. Is that a conclusion you would come to?

SJ: Let’s start with the last thing, there’s nothing you can really do about it. You know this is a recipe for letting yourself off the hook easy. I’m not saying that the feeling couldn’t be widespread, but despair of this kind is really a consequence of a certain kind of privilege. I don’t say that in a shaming way, but it’s proper to recognise that if you have time enough to engage a sort of low grade boredom induced ennui about the current state of affairs, you’re not doing too badly compared to, I don’t know, three or four fifths of the worlds population. Now, that’s just simply a wake up call. Me saying it that way is obviously a challenging thing to say. Look, politics is not a place where the best and the most committed people are likely to go, so why go to the hardware store for bread? It doesn’t condemn politics to be one of the outer echelons of Dante’s inferno, it simply says, well what do you expect, man? If the whole operation fitfully goes from one election to the next and the whole operation is designed to simply to get from you either a yes or a no and then leave you to your own devices for the following x number of years, well what do you reasonably expect such an arrangement is going to turn into, but a kind of folly?

I don’t know about your country but in this country politics generally is the sanctuary of once and future lawyers. So without shaming a particular profession, but the nature of law among other things is not to labour on behalf of a better day, but to be forever engaged in two things, the calculation of what kind of injustice can be born on the one side, and on the other side, how to prevail regardless of what justice is. I don’t think that is a cynical view of the undertaking but if politics tends to draw lawyers more than anyone else, well, you’re not going to get a different repertoire for an orientation to the work at hand.

So, if you go to the hardware store for bread, who’s the fool? Not the hardware store owner, who’s trying to sell you a screwdriver, even though you’re looking for rye bread. The foolishness comes down to the misapprehension that politics is somehow supposed to be all things for all people. It can’t be, OK, so given that, where are you going to work, man? I mean this is a fundamental question of citizenship, in a relative democracy, where are you going to work? And, I don’t mean employment, per se, although wouldn’t it be something if your heart’s desire corresponded to your paycheck at some level.

I suspect that men die at a younger age principally because of the disparity that exists between the kind of work that they end up with, which tends to do more harm than good to the world in some fashion, direct or otherwise. The gap between that and their longing to be able to do something that they believe in, to go out the door every day giving themselves something, instead of trying to calibrate the way in which they can not be stolen from by going to work. Look, these are really challenging things. But, when you’re laying there on your death bed, which is not a bad calculus to go by, what do you want to be able to remember? Do you want to remember that you were relatively easily defeated by a generic despair and that’s what you’re going to lay at the feet of people one third your age, when you’re in your seventies or your eighties, because you’re answering the question by how you proceed and how you mobilise now. It’s not a question you’re going to answer in the future, you’re actually answering it now.

So, maybe it comes to this, I wrote a book not that long ago about elderhood and in it I imagined the following scenario, that a young person comes to you with two questions only. And the first one is, when you were my age, did you know what was happening? Which is a genuine question and concern of a lot of young people today. Why? Because they want to believe at some level that you didn’t know what was happening, because how else to live with how we’ve proceeded, if we did know what was happening. And that becomes an unbearable proposition for a lot of young people. So that’s a question which is half rhetorical, please tell me you didn’t know. Well, what’s the authentic answer? Particularly in an age which credits itself with trafficking in information more than anything else. The answer is, when I was your age, given the technology of the times, even twenty or thirty or forty years ago this would be true, that anyone who wanted to know what’s going on, could’ve known. But not everybody did want to know, and so not everybody knew. And from what I can tell, things are not appreciably different now. That seems to me an authentic answer to that question. But there’s two questions, and the second question the young person asks is something in the order of, so what did you do, then, given that, what did you do? And, whether you feel it personally, whether you can afford to feel it personally, i think it’s an incontrovertible fact of life that we live a kind of subtle indebtedness that has not quite announced itself yet and our indebtedness takes the form of the generation that is born after us. We incur a kind of indebtedness and they are our debt, you see. So, whatever you have to say to them or be, comes down to how we live in the face of things like, you know, national calamities, personal travail, the kind of grind of things, and of course, if you lose your way for five seconds, just listen to Leonard Cohen for a minute. Not that it’ll fix anything, but it will really credit your difficulties, really credit them. And he’s got a line apropo of the political observations in your question, he said, “well the dealer wants you thinking, that it’s either black or white, thank God it’s not that simple”.

JL: May I come to you with some more of what I struggle with. So one thing I have it seems is a deep anger that’s particularly to older people, not exclusively and not all of them of course, but for example where I live in the communal gardens with how frequently the lawn is mown, sounds silly and simple but each time it’s mown the flowers, the weeds that have grown since the last time are killed, beheaded and I always want to scream something about not realising or knowing but doing it anyway, that we really do need these flowers for, to stop the collapse of insects that are going to be fertilizing our food, and on the other hand I can barely summon the energy to separate my recycling sometimes. And I know that if ever I update my, get a new computer or laptop or smartphone I know that that’s coming from child slaves in I’m not sure which countries but wherever the rare metals that go into the microchips are from… SJ: Chad is one place

JL: I know it, but I’m not a prolific updater but I participate in this just as much and I’m also passing this down to the next generations and I know better and I still do it, with the sense that it is a mostly futile thing, but it’s maybe reducing the stream to a slightly smaller stream, but I’m not able to dam it with my actions or to effect change. This is the hypocritical, omni-directional anger and inertia and confusion that I and many other people I am friends with and talk to find ourselves in.

SJ: Well, first of all, big answers are untrustworthy. Answers that cover all the bases is no answer at all. It’s just the Gods, you know. All wounds are local and specific, I think so. And if that’s the case then all responses should, at the end of the day, land in a local and specific way. It’s very difficult, you know, we live in a time where you’re so utterly inundated with the macro-level everything. And you’re held to a kind of strange moral code that obliges you to be one individual in a very particular place, beset with a global mind.

So if you take all of that, then imagine this scenario: I’m, with some frequency, approached by people who are either considering having children or have already procreated and they’re asking me essentially to engage in some kind of blessing ceremony or something like that for their children. And I stipulate a condition. And it’s a very taxing condition and it bears everything in mind, I believe, that you were just talking about, and it comes to this. I look them in the eye, which is my obligation and my responsibility to them, and I say, well let’s begin here, I won’t speak for other races or peoples, let them decide this matter, but it’s certainly true that the world does not need another white child, period. There’s not really a lot to debate. And of course, they look absolutely thunder struck, because what kind of blessing is this? I didn’t say it was a blessing, but I’m treating these people like they’re old enough to procreate, (so) they’re old enough to hear this. And you know, they’ve contributed directly to, by virtue of procreating, to, among other things, the issues that you have just talked about. Of course they have. So what does one do? Do you rely on abortion? Do you rely on abstinence? Well, what are you trying to fix?

Well ok, so you have to live in the world that is entrusted to you. And the way I try to do it, is I say to them, right then if we’re going to do anything by way of blessing, we’re not going to make it a discreet moment where I say various things and perhaps your parents say various things and so forth. I mean we’ll do that, but this does not in any way acknowledge or off set the fact that you’ve gone and contributed rather significantly to a development in the world that doesn’t need any contribution, over-population. So, here’s the condition, you find a place, not for me to say (where), I’m not going to superintend it, you find a place and you plant something like the number of trees you think your child’s appearance on the scene and the life they get to live in this world, somehow equates to. You do the math, you figure it out, you do the problem solving, you find the place, you do it all. Does that seem like a lot? Well then I guess you weren’t too serious about the blessing thing. You might have imagined a blessing to be nothing more than a kind of generic stamp of approval on something that’s already there. If, on the other hand, you understand blessing to be in the order of a deep affirmation that’s willing to be troubled by the way things are, then you take to heart what I’ve instructed you to do. And some people do it and some people don’t. And if they don’t, I’m not their guy.

So I’m saying the same thing about the flowers that you see disappear, so plant them somewhere else, man. Plant them in a place the blade can’t find them. No, you won’t find them either, no, you won’t see it, you won’t benefit directly from the rehabilitative or redemptive measure that you undertake. Because that’s the time we’re in now, because the fix is in in the short term. And I’m not lying about it. And I’m not telling you that you’re over responding or you’re exaggerating. I mean, that’s the word, the word responsibility means the capacity to respond. And the circumstances you’re describing they’re potentially paralysing. So paralysis is the kind of armchair affliction of the people living at one step removed from things that you’ve talked about. But, it’s possible to be engaged. And the last thing I’ll say about it is this, it seems to be the mark of grown ups, it seems to me anyway, that one of the marks of grown ups is that grown ups undertake difficult, challenging, heart-breaking work without requiring a prior assurance that by taking up the work there will be some kind of commensurate upside to be had, to be realised, to be felt, to be seen. In other words, grown ups don’t demand to be paid before they do the work. So sometimes you’ve gotta do the work you’re not gonna live to see consequences and we’re in such a time that we need more workers, I think, and fewer people who want to know that they’re in on a good thing and be rewarded ahead of time, with that sense of hope or encouragement or affirmation.

Being hopeful in a time like this is a kind of dereliction of duty, Justin, that’s what I’m saying in a nutshell. I understand the draw of being hopeful, but it’s methadone, it just traffics in a slightly less toxic material, that’s all hope really does, so the truth of the matter is if you’re addicted to hope as a prerequisite, then everything always has to have an upside. But we’re not in that time, you see. So me and this little band of mine, we’re travelling different places in the world doing a show. So what’s the point of doing a show in the teeth of this kind of storm? And the answer is, everything I’ve been telling you about is in what we do. So, I’ve taken a look at the circumstances, and this band materialised on my doorstep, and volunteered for something like heavy duty, and so I said, let’s go. And, you know, I’m doing what I’m doing as a consequence of what I’m saying to you. Nobody else has to do this, but I have to do it. And we have to do it and when this is done I will try to find something else. Because I’m trying to answer those kids who are going to come up the driveway asking me what did I do when the heavy weather started to blow in.

JL: Might I say that given the definition of what you just said a blessing is, really your whole work is a blessing, everything you do seems to be in that order.

SJ: Well, I have probably run out of curses… You know, not to elevate my endeavours unnecessarily, but, I mean you’re very kind to have said it, but the deeper matter at hand is, oh I had my time of trying to find the bad guys, and keeping calumny and the rest and I’m more than capable of it still, but it doesn’t make much of a claim upon me any more. And, I don’t say that a well placed episode of genuine anger and outrage isn’t absolutely called for, it’s absolutely called for, very occasionally it should be directed specifically at a person or people, but more often than not in the west these acts of outrage are actually impotence, and they’re often directed at people trying to make somebody pay so you can feel the consequence of your actions. But impotent people traffic in impotence, so there’s something about the willingness to bless, that is, to my mind is the antidote to impotence, it’s not the opposite, it’s the antidote. A blessing has real and genuine consequence, in the world, but you have to practice it, you know, it’s not a feeling. And blessing has nothing to do with proving of the way things are, it has everything to do with a kind of embodied advocacy, for a better day, this is actually what the word blessing is, as I understand it. And on my better days practise it. (34:34)

JL: So what are we to do when we have so few role models for blessing and living in that way, when most of the people who are activists or are agitating for change or a better world, are frankly very angry and to many people are off putting because of this, not to me personally, I sympathise with their anger, but that seems to be part of the stalemate of the whole thing. And there’s so little by way of knowing what this is and what it looks like and how it should function. In the modern day spiritual communities there’s a lot of emphasis on forgiveness and the sort of premature false unity that maybe is existing in a very sort of transpersonal, transcendental, universal state that doesn’t exist in the world as we are here and now between us. There are certainly some ideas of what such a blessing or living in this way might look like, but most of them half baked or misguided or avoidant or etc…

SJ: Well, listen, two little things about the tendency to think ill of the human race, misanthropy by another name. First thing to say about it is that it seems that only human beings have come up with misanthropy as a kind of solution reflex to the dilemmas at hand. No other life form would appear to harbour anything like the deep enmity for humans that humans are capable of, and we might want to take some instruction from all the life forms that we share this place with, because we’re the only ones who’ve come up with self hatred as a solution to the self. Second thing I’d say about it is, misanthropy or self hatred is the current form of self absorption, that’s what it is. It’s not a higher moral order, it’s not a deepened range of understanding, it’s an absolute unwillingness to inhabit the mystery days that were entrusted to you.

So misanthropy is overrated as an act of conscience, I would say. We have no obligation to misanthropy to a deep demeaning of humans. I’m not saying that there’s not ample opportunity to give vent to all of that thing, of course there is, you know, people are deeply disappointing, but don’t forget Dostoevsky’s brilliant observation in The Brothers Karamatsov, he has the grand inquisitor making the following observation, he says, well, the thing about humans, you humans, is that every time you start talking about how you love humanity, it’s generally because you have a very difficult time loving individual people. And the truth of the matter is you can’t find humanity, go look for it but you can’t find it. Because there’s no such thing. There’s individuals trying to make a go of the humanity that was entrusted to them, some of them do an absolute miserable and damaging job of it, but a lot of people are just in a degree of kind of confusion that doesn’t know how to proceed and that needs something in the order of that kind of blessing repertoire that we were talking about earlier, even though I understand as much, well, I have some understanding of what it means to feel that the only proper response is to give up, well if you must give up then do so, understanding, hopefully, all the while that by giving up you’re asking the rest of us to do that much more. But if it’s the time for giving up then do so. Experiment with giving up and find out how that works. Sure, there are moments you can’t go on, that is an absolutely accurate assessment of things, you’re not a co-axial cable of potential, you know, there are times when you cannot go on. But the mark of a sane society is that not everybody hits that moment at the same time. And the mark of a crazy society is that they do, so you’ve got to unplug a little bit, you see. So you’re not dragged to the brink by the information. That’s why I wrote the newsletter on my website a little while ago, called, Point, Shoot, Repeat, this is quietly what I was saying.

Look man, you know, the grandchildren of your neighbours will have more in common with people in Asia and Africa, by virtue of this so called smart technology, than they will likely have with people that they would recognise as their neighbours. It’s very terrifying what’s going on and one of the things to do is to see to it that they can’t get at you, to have their programming way with you. And I don’t mean to sound paranoid, but we have an old adage in the mental health trade, just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get you. And we know the metrics game and everything that’s going on now is basically designed to turn you into information that they can monetize. It’s very true, nothing paranoid about that. So you’ve got to find a way not to co-operate. Last thing I’ll say about it, if I was just to spin off balmy answers, solution driven vignettes, there’s nothing respectful about doing that. It’s simply not my responsibility to absolve you of the anxieties that you’re faithfully reporting on. You’ve earned them, they’re a part of the architecture of the time we live in, and if I were to steal them from you it would make me a thief. Not somebody who’s respectfully available for some kind of alternative vision of the regime, which I think is partly my responsibility. So, I don’t feel the obligation to have answers that instantly reassure, you see. Because why, well because you have more resilience, even in your distress, and that has to be traded upon from time to time it seems to me and employed, that resilience, even when there’s not the will to do it. So, this is not aversive answering strategy from me, this is respect you’re hearing.

JL: What I would say, giving voice and I’m coming to you with my difficulties, my struggles, my frustrations and so on but as I’m growing up becoming older, what you’re talking about isn’t completely foreign concept to me and so to link that perhaps in closing to the nights of grief and mystery that you’ll be offering us. My experience of attending those evenings and of your work generally, there’s something about the heartbreak that happens through the storytelling that you do and Gregory’s music that makes it possible to proceed or in some way carry everything that’s happening in the world. Even though you’re not telling stories about the whole world or the things that we have specifically talked about, it’s specific moments that you witnessed or were a part of in palliative work and other encounters with grief and death and dying and sickness, life and death and birth. And there’s something in that which is humanising and draws me out of the spell of, I’m not sure how to put it, everything that seems to be distancing and dehumanising and artificial and unimportant about my daily life and about how things are at them moment and into the very real, which is deeply mysterious, the nights are aptly named, and there’s, I don’t want to use the word awake because of the connotations of that, the various mystical or spiritual connotations, I don’t want to use it in that sense. But there is something about coming to an awareness of what’s important and just how real all of these things that happen anyway but are hushed away and hidden and cloistered away from polite conversation that the time that you give us and speak about these and in which Gregory performs his music, it opens up vistas of aliveness and deep feeling that can absolutely include wretchedness and misery, but can also include great beauty and joy and appreciation for magnificence of life containing. And that has been an antidote to my misanthropy, but hasn’t penetrated fully and as this is happening I am coming more deeply into turmoil about how things are, but it’s also not without succour and it’s a blessing.

SJ: Well, you’re very kind to say that. I think, probably, though I don’t as a rule, describe what it is because it’s a mysterious enterprise when it happens, but if I’m pressed then I would say we’re probably testifying more than entertaining, and yet people constantly say, my god that was funny, how did that happen, for example, and I say well these are not opposites. We’re testifying to the way things are at a troubled time, it’s not the opposite to hilarity, hilarity is another way of understanding it, it’s another part of the repertoire of being a human being in a troubled time, in a time that would seduce you away from being a human. So, the last thing I would say about it maybe would be this, I was doing an interview and they were asking me to compare nights of grief and mystery to some other kind of cultural or musical event, and I said, well, I think it’s not theatre it’s from a time before we had theatre. How so? He said. Well, I said, you know the thing that makes theatre, theatre, when all’s said and done is the presence of an audience that we would all acknowledge that the audience has the consequence of casting the whole thing. In a kind of performative if not spectacle fashion. And it is in some way or other intended to have consequence upon the audience, but the audience consequence is very meagre, it’s to be present and basically vote yes or no, kind of election style. And not much more that that.

I think nights of grief and mystery comes from a time that’s ceremonial or ritual, which is, what ritual is, is ceremony minus an audience. We don’t have audiences if we’re successful in our undertaking. We demolish the notion of audience and try to replace it with co-conspirators of people who are in some fashion or another willing. You know, I think the night begins, I don’t think, I should say I know it begins, as I begin it, the band comes out, they establish a kind of musical pulse, if you will, and I come out and I join that pulse and the first thing I say is something which is invocation. That’s what it is, and I say, welcome friends, for friends we may soon be. For friends are forged on the dark road that’s headed out of town. And we’re headed there. Who am I talking to? I am not talking to the people who are sitting there looking at me, Welcome friends for friends we may soon be, I’m talking to everyone who’s ever been alive, I’m talking to peoples ancestry and I’m asking them to attend to us this evening before I get anywhere close to speaking to the people who are sitting there looking at me. How shall we be and what shall we say now that the summons and the plea and the prayer has gone out? It’s better if we make as though many a thing hangs in the balance and hangs in the rafters. As if how we are with each other tonight will be how the Gods of chance will be with us. That doesn’t sound like theatre to me, that sounds like ceremony. And we proceed that way and we call in the saints to the best of our ability and ask people to join us in doing so, and somewhere along the line, if we’re successful, there’s no more audience. There’s all of us pulling in the direction of a better day. And that’s not a bad expenditure for an evening in the equivalent of a couple of bad or questionable take out meals.

JL: Stephen thank you so much for your generous offerings of your time and your eloquence. I’m again in awe of your ability to tackle these topics and every time to say something that’s fully attentive to everything that’s happening. They’re not your stock and trade answers they are true responses. And that’s a rare thing.

SJ: Well your very kind, man and I think you’re doing the same thing on our behalf in your country too, I recognise it, you know, and we are doing what we can and a little more. We are doing some things we can’t do actually, and you’ve given an enormous part of your attention and your energy and your give a shit and a lot of things, in the last while to see to it that this might come (to be). Like you’ve heard me say, this is a kind of love letter that you’re writing to your country. And we simply are the ink and the paper and the pen and if the people come, that means that they have received that letter and are writing back. And if you can pull that off in one evening in a house full of strangers well then, why would you quit. That’s the very antidote to despair that we’re talking about. So many a thing is possible regardless of how likely it is. And the nights of grief and mystery is deeply unlikely. And it happens, and it’s going to happen again and we’re coming. So, let’s brag about that, and on the other side of it that’s exactly what we’ll do.

JL: Thank you, so much, Stephen.


May 8, 2019


That’s how you belong—not by finally arriving, but by having longing for arrival quickened, by being willing to long after life by living. – t seems to me that as you get older, you might bear down upon your life and give it the quiet consideration it deserves. Do so, and you could catch glimpses of the shoreline that guides it and contains it and won’t let it go on forever. It’s mournful, and it’s trued. Many’s a time I’ve been asked in interviews whether, having seen so much of the deaths of others, I’m finally “good” with my death, all resigned and accepting, my desire for life left in the parking lots of demise, the keys left inside. As if that’s what I’d want, after all that.

I tell you this: from the glimpse of my death I’ve drawn down a great longing for life.

We have this word, belong. We use it to mean, “being part of.” But the old English prefix be- has the semantic consequence of intensifying as it goes. So belonging means something closer to “the deepening of longing.”

That’s how you belong—not by finally arriving, but by having longing for arrival quickened, by being willing to long after life by living. That’s how I belong, anyway. I find that being alive is habit forming. I’m deeply fond of the thing now, irremovably fond of it, properly wrinkled as we both have become.

So, catch a glimpse of the end of what you hold dear, even of your ability and your willingness to hold someone or something dear. Don’t blink. There are all the unbidden memories of things that were good and things that were otherwise and never made quite right now come, all of it is true and trustworthy now, the edges honed and mercifully sharp. Your life curls back towards you in some way just then. Great lengths of it are raised by the hone of your faithful witness to the full weight and the full wreckage of your allotment, what you did with what was entrusted to you. Your life finally, for a while, is something like you now, legible in the curl. The dispensation of age can settle upon you. The light of these older days of your allotment can pass through the curl of your memories undisturbing, undisturbed.

Read the full story on dumbofeather.com

We’re all living longer, and around the world the population of older people is rising. But do we have elders?

Canadian author and activist Stephen Jenkinson argues we’re missing out on the leadership and wisdom we once received from elders in the community.

In his book Come of Age: A Case for Elderhood in a Time of Trouble Stephen writes that becoming an elder is a skill. He’s in the country giving a series of talks this week, and joins us to explain his theory.

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.