I don’t know when I stopped being a young person, or when I started being something else. I do know that I never chose that particular ending, and that it ended anyway. The whole thing is mysterious: when do you begin turning into what you are now? And how would you know? And how long will that last?
Certainly there will come times in life when each of us are surrounded by people who mean well by us, who proceed with us as if not much has happened that really changes anything, as if we’re fine and will remain so, as if we’re likely to know whatever we need to know and probably already do, all the mandatory things. Those people we usually count among our friends. You may not see them for a while – if you farm, as we do, you may not see them often at all, or only when the green season finally goes white, and you find yourself like a migratory bird again in a season of visiting – but when you do they give you as you give them a clear signal that each of you is pretty much as you’ve been, that sustenance remains your reward. One of the great compliments we give to each other, once our aging has become palpable, clear and marked, is that we don’t look any older. Or, if we do, that it’s an improvement, and suits us well, which almost comes to the same thing.
Of course, this is not much of a map to set the compass of your days by. Friendliness of this kind can be confusing to all concerned, the same way offering gold bullion to someone trying to tread water can be confusing. The good intent doesn’t determine much. To know where you are in the arc of your life, in the caravan of your days, that can help. From what I’ve seen around me it isn’t often welcome knowledge, not the way my corner of the world piles up its treasure of no unwanted change. In my time of enduring the professionalized low grade trauma known as the palliative care industry, known to me as the death trade, I saw most dying people a-twist in their sheets, some part of them knowing that something was happening, but more of them adrift and clinging to the straw rafts their caregivers wove from maybe’s and not yet’s and we’ll see’s. And be positive’s, and don’t give up’s. The lunacy of that particular kind of friendly cheerleading led most dying people along an unremarkable trail of little uncertainties, and that became their last months. Though it was deeply, truly knowable, most dying people spent their dying time not knowing where they were, not knowing what this time of their life asked of them, mostly waiting to find out, to be told. Instead of learning.
We in the dominant culture of North America don’t practice those rites of losing that go a long way to helping other people in other, older places know where in the arc of their days they are. Often what happens is that, instead of learning what the poet Elizabeth Bishop called the art of losing, we learn ‘steady as she goes’, and rarely are things steady. Often we are drawn to each other by certain samenesses that we bargain won’t change: people who like the same restaurants or politicians, or live in the same kind of houses or collect the same kinds of memories for their shelves, often find each other and spend decades of their lives cultivating the No Random Change of their days. Swapping those samenesses looks a lot like constancy, and to a people hooked on competence, feeling good and being all you can be constancy can look an awful lot like a life. Certainly during my lifetime the great con that has resisted all evidence to the contrary is the one that mutters every day: ‘You have a choice. You have the deciding vote on what your life means, on what happens, on all the Great Supposed To’s. You have a vote on what’s true.’
Over the last couple of years one of the particular joys of doing Orphan Wisdom’s work is that more and more younger people are coming. Most of them aren’t spiritual tourists, wandering from one experience to the next, haggling over what a little enlightenment should cost, asking for continuing education credits before they vote with their feet. More and more they are beginning to resemble people no longer convinced and condemned by their cultural orphanhood, the very people I had in mind when I began our School. I don’t know how they’re finding the School and me, but they are. Many older people still come to this work steeped in doubt, muttering ‘Prove it and I’ll come’, but the younger ones often have some vestigial wonder about them instead, and their mantra sounds a lot more like: ‘Maybe’. They often sit at the front of the room. They ask questions, real questions, not lawyer questions, accusations tarted up to sound like questions. They don’t often come with a firmly entrenched right to know things, but with a more pliable desire to know them, sometimes even a willingness to learn them, and sometimes a longing for real work.
Something has begun to happen, because of this. The young people drawn to this work are aging the rest of us drawn to this work. They don’t mean to, and many of them don’t know they are doing it, but they are. When young people approach something that has for a time been carried by their elders, driven by whatever emptiness or rumour of nourishment might haunt them, older people have a chance to see themselves as worthy of that approach, as having done something with their lives that warrants that approach. Just as you began growing an ability to love by being loved first, which sent up into the light an unlikely and unsuspected shoot of green worthiness in you, so being sought out by someone younger than you gives you the chance to suspect what they suspect, that someone knows something worth knowing, that the whole enterprise might not be in vain, or if it is that there’s no need to go down into that vanity alone. It could be that those young people who are certain unsuspected sisters and brothers of mercy that the poet laureat of our moment, Leonard Cohen, wrote of:
If your life is a leaf
that the seasons tear off and condemn,
They will bind you with love
that is graceful and green as a stem.
And so it is that elders do not elders make. That is more what happens in senior centres, where the elderly remind each other of what can no longer be. No, it is young people who make elders. They do it by proceeding as if there might be such a thing as elders, often without any evidence that this is so, and by not seeking only their own. Young people make elders, in spite of every whisper that discredits the Tower of Age, by seeking them out. In that way the young give to the aged among them a sign of where in the story of their lives the elders might be, by whispering:
‘You are here, now, at this moment in your life when
you’ve seen more than you’ll see. Thank you for that.
Can you spare a few moments of the moments you have left?’
And it may be that elders – not parents – are the ones who make young people, by readying themselves for the unlikely appearance of someone still keen in spite of it all, a sojourner after life who arrives without notice at their door. Elders must go through their latter days without much evidence that one day they might well be needed by someone younger, someone who quietly fears that it has always been as it is, and that there aren’t reasons enough to continue.
My teaching life here often obliges us to leave the farm and travel in hopes of finding evidence that something of what I’ve written here might be true. (We usually find it.) We leave our farm, all the plants, animals, the buildings, the whole barely orchestrated mayhem of the thing in the care of young people now. It has become a mysterious and unsought after pleasure, to return home and see what young eyes found needed doing, how their ways make a new kind of sense. It is great practice too for the end of all our days, when each of us will have to entrust everything we’ve known and done and loved in the care of those who don’t yet know what we place in their hands, but who in time to come might hold it in some esteem, maybe only because we preceded them, or because we tried.
All blessings on your wild years, on their wild ways of ending, on the road in and out of town, and on those to come.
Stephen Jenkinson, MTS, MSW
Author, Spiritual Activist and Founder of The Orphan Wisdom School