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.​

Stephen Jenkinson has been at the deathbed of more than a thousand people. He says death can be a wondrous and empowering mystery but we need to start talking about it differently.

“I don’t think the problem was that we weren’t talking about dying…the dilemma was, and has always been, and remains, what are we saying when we talk about dying?

The principle habits of the mind and the psyche are always manifest in the language…In a culture that’s allegedly speaking more and more about death all the time…The word ‘die’ doesn’t appear very often, the word ‘death’ even less, and ‘dead’ hardly at all.”

A former leader of a palliative care team, here Stephen shares his insights with Chip Richards from UPLIFT on how to support death to be a positive process.

There are days that come – and surely they have found you – when assuredness about the aim and the reasons for your life is the first casualty of the giddy good fortune of awakening again and heaving to uprightness and bringing anything in particular to mind. You are suddenly awash in wonder at the ordinary unlikeliness of your days and your place in them. It isn’t confusion, exactly, that comes round. It is more the entirely mandatory happenstance encounter with The Reign of Chance. You wake up once more, but all the habits of your mind have not yet done so, and you come to first light as an amateur again, bereft of order and the easy stride it grants. You have a lightness to your limbs and to your first contemplations, an imprecision you’d never seek, so much like ‘sudden nothing’ does it seem, like the end of the old purpose and of the old clarity, and the beginning of something older.

I have, thanks to the persistence of he Mankiller Tour that began in earnest in 2015, become a denizen of the road. And so I’ve become prone to these kinds of encounters.  As on many another strange morning, I have washed ashore just now from ten weeks on the road, from the Oceania Tour, and awoke in this arrhythmia at yesterday’s first light. It began as you’d expect: “Okay. Where am I? Is there a gig tonight? Interview? Does today have an airport in it somewhere? Will I make the weight limit? What is my business? Is there anything of the Old Life standing?” But there was only a room not at once familiar, and a view of the river I once knew now free of ice and risen over its banks, and the particular quiet of an off-grid house that I’d over these months learned to live without. And the grace that comes with the end of momentum. In that quiet, I considered and reconsidered.

If you came to your age of majority labouring under the gaze of two parents who managed a steady fondness for you and your errancy, that’s probably because they managed a stout fondness for each other, and I trust you count yourself in fortune’s company and in something grown rare. And if as you came to the gates of your life’s saunter and sojourn as a young man or woman one or two others raised up the dragging hem of your soul and all its allegations and became your soul’s parents, then the Graces themselves had their way with your days. And if you awakened as you went to some retroactive reasons for your birth and the persistence of your pulse against the entropic odds of this jangled time of ours, you may sometimes be by turns giddy with the assignment of real purpose, and you may sometimes be rent asunder by only a glimpse of how the radical ramshackling beginnings of wisdom are more rarely sought it seems than they might have been in former times, and that they traded in so often now for personal style or for dominion. In those days the longing for companionship for your purposed soul is heavy.

And if you’re gone away for a legion of days at the firm beckoning of the Old Worthies and the Ancients of Days, and if you arrive at a home where someone waits, candle in the window and heat in the hearth, and affords you a bit of room afforded should you have to find yourself again, you are of course fortune’s son or daughter. And all of this, all of it, comes bounding to you as portents and wonders, and signs that the Gods of Chance have rolled the knucklebones of fate and your worthiness has been agreed upon, and that you’ve only to submit, to wear the raiment afforded you by the travails and the truing of your time, burdensome and telling as it often is.

Now, for all of that, should the road find you in conclave with those who will conspire to take all your reasons up with theirs and prize a better day with them, you might just reel from the strange mercy of it all. And you might plead for mercy from that strange, Godly mercy. And that is what happened. The Nights of Grief of Mystery were granted me by the kindness of the peoples of Adelaide and Melbourne​,​​ Newcastle, Wentworth Falls, ​Sydney and Hobart and Auckland​, ​Gold Coast, Brisbane, Bangalow and Coorabell, Yandina and ​Fremantle​, and Bali and ​Maui, and all the other good places these last months, that is true. Still, the gold and the glint of those long days was finding myself in companionship of the Round Table kind. Companionship: it means – and still means – the way of being with bread, the table fellowship of kin. Scoring my mischief and my muse I had the good graces of a band, one Gregory Hoskins, and a road apprentice, one Aaron ​Berger. Concerts for Turbulent Times they surely were, sonorous hours and rapture.  I will tell you that these times were served by whatever talents of tongue and timbre granted the band and the bard, and by the raucous willingness of the sold out houses down under to be drawn into wonder and poetry and the kenning of these times. The doors were pried at night’s end, and still many lingered and couldn’t leave or wouldn’t, and there was something like victory in the air, and a weary, luminous midnight rumour that people heretofore unknown to each other can still join for the sake of the young among them and of the world still entrusted to them, and that the Mercies count us kin, and that wonder is the currency of the Gods. To all of you who wondered aloud with us these last two months over that vast country in the south: would that the storehouse of mystery out behind the house of your ordinary days be full, no matter how threadbare you’d grown certain it was, and that your neighbours hear tell of it and find their’s full too.

And now this caravan of consequence and conjure, these Nights of Grief & Mystery, are bound for Wales and for England in May​ (Fishguard, Totnes, Brighton, Norfolk, London, Sheffield and Bristol)​. Would that some of you come to hear these tales that those who parted from your Old Countries in centuries past came for in Oceania. Would that you grant us, two more sons Come From Away, the honour of your evening.

Stephen Jenkinson

Vajra Body Vajra Mind, is a provocative podcast that explores the outer limits of spiritual practice and human development. On their show, they talk with leaders in the Buddhist, entheogenic and somatic fields and through these conversations they attempt to glean the most pragmatic and succinct bits of wisdom to connect us deeper into our heart and mind. Their show is dedicated to the evolution of the human species and the benefit of all beings. Here is their recent interview with Stephen Jenkinson. Listen to all our published interviews with Stephen Jenkinson.

Bold

Feb 13, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Jenkinson, MTS, MSW

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

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

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Stephen Jenkinson and Gregory Hoskins – Oceania Tour 2017. Stephen is a Harvard Educated Theologian, Culture Activist, founder of The Orphan Wisdom School, author of DIE WISE: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul, subject of a National Film Board of Canada documentary, Griefwalker. He comes with teachings of the ramshackling kind, about honour and grace under pressure, about elderhood in an age of age-intolerance, about the withering World Tree, about how we might learn our darkening times. And there will be evening concerts too, because he has Gregory Hoskins to lend his music and his road-tested grace to the cause. Picture it: A storyteller. A band. An evening of mongrel sorrow, dappled by magic and wonder, fringed with regard for the gift of the tongue, harkening and hortatory and bardic and greying, steeped in mortal mystery, uprooted from its uncertain home in the North of America and cast divination-style like bones on a dusty proving ground down under. What would you call such a thing? Video courtesy of ianmack.com. Tour, dates, locations, teaching descriptions and online tickets.

The Interview: It is a strange conceit. Someone is drawn to you because of something ​you said in another interview, and they want you to say it again, ​but this time more achievedly​, or more clearly​. The unenviable occupation of the interviewer is to work you around to a handful of moments wherein you outdo yourself, and in so doing eclipse what drew that person to you in the first place. And you, the interviewee, must allow yourself to be drawn into imagining several thousand chairs gathered semi​-​circularly and devotedly, occupied by several thousand willing conscripts who have been raised up out of their ordinary and mortal days by the sudden out-of-the-blue chance to overhear the unlikely and blessed murmurings that your life has entrusted to you, and all of you gathered ​round this imaginary fire of subtle salvation in this dark night of the collective soul that the current regime not very secretly has become. That might sound a little overblown, but that’s what’s come my way. In a consumer culture interview you​ ​​are obliged to imagine people ​out there, ​assembled by torment and by the hope that someone has it All Figured Out, and somewhere in the interview you are called upon to deliver the goods, and get it sorted, to sell certainty, to put up a road sign that reads: ‘The Way – ​a few moments ahead’.

I have submitted to probably several dozens of interviews over the last decade or so, not many by the strange standards of celebrity, but enough to conjure in an unsuspecting ​interviewee’s ​mind rumours of ​personal ​glory and ​the ​possibility​ of notorious swagger. The interview is a seduction in the way that pornography is seductive: it is a conclave of strangers fated, probably, to remain strange, gathered by the rumour of spectacle but conjured by the isolating concern that they’ve been left out of the procession of beauty and insiderhood.​ The talk show is the overweight child of the interview, and the person being interviewed is encouraged to eat all the attention, all that ‘centre of the universe’ status temporarily served up to him or her.​

In the early going I’m sure I went along with it all, not very informed by the machinery and the chicanery of what is called these days The Conversation, throwing my tw​o​ cents into the maw of opinion, watching it disappear without a trace. What made interviews more troubling for me as I got older was the heady and ludicrous obligation to have The Answer, to show people The Way, to solve the thing​ I had showed some concern about​. To be able to wonder about what troubles, to craft a consternation which is articulate or a sorrow faithful to what sorrows: I treasure these things, and on my good days I practice them. But it is the lot of the interviewee to ​be asked in some way or other to ​collude with ​this bit of fog: sorrow or wonder or troubledness are preparatory, preliminary steps on the royal road to The Answer, The Fix. ​The truth is that in our time i​t tests patience and endurance to set off on an hour’s worth of wonder and perplexedness and grief without tra​ffic​k​ing in grievance, ​and ​without the infantilizing saccharine drip reward that promises the bright horizon at the interview’s end, the new dawn, where everything – anything – is Great Again.

​ ​Steer your way past the truth ​ ​You believed in yesterday ​ ​Such as fundamental goodness ​ ​Or the wisdom of the Way

That’s the recommendation of one patron saint of the Orphan Wisdom School (unawares), to get hip to the seduction of conviction and belief system and ​fix. It is an old ​woman’s or ​man’s wisdom. You could mistake it for bitterness or cynicism, but it has the tone of something road weary and road tested, something counterintuitive that has earned its keep. It is a grown-up’s way of going on, sometimes scarcely being able to.

Anyway, I write all of this to you by way of saying: Yes, here comes another interview. The interlocutor ​here was kind – not always the case – and he was concerned about what he was asking – also far from inevitable. A little behind-the-scenes for you about this one: the audience was one accustomed to finance-related themes, as I understood it, and I cautioned the interviewer that I had no useful notions or experience where ‘peak prosperity’ is concerned, and that I shouldn’t be relied upon to translate anything I’ve seen into that vernacular. That didn’t stop me from trying, as you’ll hear.​ Perhaps once or twice you’ll hear a ‘lord of the universe’ tone come in (some would say more than once or twice). But mostly what you hear is me trying to make some useful sense, again, of the trouble of the day, taking my respectful lead from those who invited me, carrying myself as if, perhaps, a few of you might be out there, listening.

So you have here a few moments pause from the fray, me turning the questions back upon themselves so that they could earn their keep as something worthy of the time you might give to listening, so that I could earn m​y keep. I like the laboured-over feel that shows up in this one from time to time. There is something here that reaches out to the possibility that you might recognize what I’m being asked about, or how I’m responding. I’m talking as if you’re out there. There isn’t a lot of ‘upswing’ to the thing, and you’ll not likely feel like dancing after listening. But at this darkened end of the year in the North, where I am, as the Litany of the Illumined and the Light banishes anything but obligatory joy from any family encounter, maybe the uncertain, brailed-out tone of the thing might be a welcome pause in the festivities. Afterwards, you can return to the merriment, perhaps with another take on happiness, another tempered and tuned gravity to lend to ​the f​rollick.

Would that the Mercies crowd the fortunes at your doorstep. Would that the Ornery Deities be granted their seat at the feast table this time around, so that they don’t claim all the others.

Stephen Jenkinson

Listen to Stephen’s recent interview with Chris Martenson from Peak Prosperity.

Read the full transcript of the interview visit valuewalk.com

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

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

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

Stephen Jenkinson, MTS, MSW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo courtesy of Ian MacKenzie.

You die in the matter of your living. In poetic and soulful language, Stephen Jenkinson speaks of the moral imperative to contemplate and reconcile death as a way to inform how we live, reclaim our ancestral roots, redeem our past, and leave a legacy for those we love. Join Stephen at his upcoming Hollyhock retreat on July 31 – Aug 5, 2016.