I couldn’t imagine why I would want to dedicate two years of my life to studying with a man who could be confused with the grim reaper himself…
I should begin by explaining that I had zero interest in studying grief.
And for every right reason. I lost my best friend to suicide when I was 15, and my best friend in college to a car accident. By the time I was 30 I had lost eight loved ones, and knew what it was to live with grief. So I couldn’t imagine why I would want to dedicate two years of my life to studying with Stephen Jenkinson, who was featured in a documentary called Griefwalker, and could be confused with the Grim Reaper himself, considering how many deathbeds he has visited. (Legend has it that he has sat with over a thousand people as they died, while working as director of palliative care at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital.) No, thank you.
But my friend Day pleaded with me, saying that it would serve me well to sit at the feet of a Great Rememberer. He wanted me to study with a man who employs eloquence as the old bards did—as a way to remember life again. I had watched Day go through a phoenix rising of sorts since he began his studies at the Orphan Wisdom School, cofounded by Stephen Jenkinson and his wife, Nathalie Roy, so I checked out their website. But couldn’t make sense of it in a quick skim.
Then, another friend, Matthew, asked if I would be attending. Matthew said that Jenkinson (“Dr. J,” as he nicknamed him; Jenkinson holds a master’s in Divinity from Harvard and a master’s in Social Work from University of Vancouver) was wondering about how to cultivate the skills of building culture and of becoming a myth maker. Matthew also said that I’d be in good company—part of a community of wonderers who are asking big questions—and with that, he placed the nail in the coffin.
The next thing I knew, I needed to find a piece of maple from a tree that I knew and a knife whose maker was known to me, and I was headed to join about 90 other new “scholars” at Stephen’s rural farm in Ottawa, Canada. We gathered first around a small fire that kept the mosquitoes away, and then a cowbell rang and we crossed a field of knee-high grass and filed into a newly constructed timber-frame building that felt like something between a one-room schoolhouse and a church. I took a seat on one of the freshly made pine benches and admired the chiseled beams held together by wooden pegs. Then Stephen walked in, dressed stylishly in a wool jacket, wearing a black hat and with a long braid down his back. The room stood up and applauded, and I realized I had no idea what I had gotten myself into.
“I’m here to be troubled out loud,” he began. “So don’t confuse me with a teacher—I am a practitioner. Everything I teach I am practicing in front of you.”
Then he started “shooting arrows,” and like everyone else in the room, I was struck.
Unlearning That We Are Nobody
“Act as if you are people of consequence,” Jenkinson invited, “So that I can treat you as such. And you matter. What must have happened to people who unconsciously agreed that the best presence in this world is to have no consequence? It’s a velvet gantlet, this idea of being of consequence. It doesn’t clink when it hits the ground, but you can feel it; it would be proper to proceed as if there is consequence to us being here.
“I prefer to imagine that you are of vast consequence, being something like a stone in a still pond, and not limited by your lifespan. That is not a recipe for grandiosity, because with it comes a weight or a burden. You could have a consequence that you didn’t intend, or that you wished you didn’t have, so you could feel free. But there you go with the North American idea of freedom.”
The Unofficial History of America
“The principle of freedom is what the alleged founding groups [of North America] were after. That’s the official version of the history that is bestowed upon us. But the accurate version is that everyone was trying to be free from what they knew. It’s a much different gesture and understanding of freedom—to shake loose from what you come from, rather than to have a 52-card deck of possibilities called your future.
“If there is anything I am teaching about the unauthorized history of America, then I’d better start with the terms and conditions of our meeting: that many of us are fleeing from all manner of inconsequence that we mistake for freedom—the anonymity of insignificance. And one of the antidotes, strangely enough, is to ask more of people when they have a sense of being nobody. Not less of them. The burden of learning confers that.”
Some of my peers just listened. Others of us tried to capture his arrows with quickly scribbled notes. At times, we opened etymology books and studied the world we live in through the words we use—learning from a poet who had the presence of a rock star and comedic timing that could compete with Louis C. K.
The Origin of Inconsequence
“The origin goes back to the cradle of civilization: There are records that come from the Tigris-Euphrates basin. It happened when people gathered not on kinship, but rather on who owed what to whom instead. Which is when everything became unglued.
“I think there is a certain consequence of too many people in one place. When there is a critical mass, and you tip beyond that point, you can’t claw back from it. That’s when you try to legislate civility. Because when there are too many strangers, strangerhood becomes a template for social engineering. The world is paying a heavy price for this. We can see it in how we feel: our radical loneliness, no matter who is around us, no matter how affluent and lucky we are. These things are signs, not causes. If we are people of consequence, that runs through us too.”
Language and the Shift of Time
“The change and the meaning in language lines up the way kelp does—kelp grows the distance from the ocean floor up to the surface, and then a little bit more. That little bit more is what lies on the surface—it is how kelp announces the shifts in the current.
“By the same token, the shift in time, and the change of meaning in the English language, lines up like kelp on the surface. When you track down the change in syntax and consequence of speech, it probably signals immense subliminal changes in the culture that is changing the words. From that point of view, language is at the heart of the Orphan Wisdom forensic audit, which is about how to smell from a great distance for something that happened a long time ago.
“If you can break the habits of language, you can break the habits of perception and feeling.”
“You must lose your insistence on losing. That’s the greater thing.”
“You lose your car keys. Not people. Losing people is an act of carelessness. Dying is what people do. Losing is what you do to them. Can you say good-bye to the loss?”
Jenkinson went on to quote the patron saint of the Orphan Wisdom School, a well-known poet and singer whose name he will not mention out of respect for his recent death:
Say good-bye to Alexander leaving.
Then say good-bye to Alexander lost.
“You must lose your insistence on losing. That’s the greater thing.”
This particular arrow hit hard, and I remembered the day I learned that my college friend Gemma had died. She was the first person I called after returning from a three-month trip to Asia, but she had died in a car accident the day before. I was furious. She was young, beautiful, smart, and someone I revered. It didn’t seem fair. Gemma’s mother reacted in a way that has haunted me ever since. She asked with genuine curiosity why I felt Gemma had been stolen from me. It seemed obvious at the time. In listening to Jenkinson, I began to understand her for the first time.
“Say your good-bye when the dying can hear you. But the deeper achievement is to forego the idea that you have been ripped off because they died; that you’ve been deprived because life has withheld its bounty from you; because of the entitlement you feel when you didn’t get what you wanted.
“There is a skillfulness and willingness to walk the sorrow road without seeking isolation as midwife for that sorrow. I think the principal sorrows of the world are not personal. I think the more profound sorrows are the ones we recognize in each other. There is something about hearing the sound of someone else’s sorrow that helps you find your way there.”
Grief Is Not How You Feel
“Grief is what you do. It is a skill. And the twin of grief is the skill of being able to praise and love life. Which means whenever you see one, the other is closely at hand: grief, and the praise of life. They are toasting the living.
“So grief and sadness are not synonymous. There is an immense amount of grief that ensues from a joyous encounter. Grief is what I mean by letting yourself be wrecked on schedule. You can be wrecked by meeting someone—and having something of your heart open toward them. That can be a devastating encounter, particularly if you’ve grown accustomed to a starvation diet of various seductions. It seems to me that grief finds its real traction in some kind of village-based context. Its real meaning occurs when the understanding is shared.
“The writer Peter Matthiessen was living with headhunters and sitting on a mountaintop with an elder when he looked across the valley and saw people moving.
‘Who are they?’ he asked.
‘Those are our enemies,’ the elder answered.
‘So you hate them?’
‘Oh no, we don’t hate them.’
‘But you kill them?’
‘Yes, we kill each other on sight most of the time.’
‘Then what do you call them?’
‘We call them kin.’
‘How can you be kin if you kill them and they kill you?’
‘We’re close because we die the same death.’
“That’s an amazing reversal of what we think of as an adversary. This is the binding power of mutually understanding sorrow.”
The Maple and the Knife
In the afternoons, we gathered to carve a spoon out of the piece of wood that we brought. We were told to keep the shavings; they were just as important as what we were carving. And so the concept of being people of consequence was grounded in lived experience as we considered that our actions, every one of them, have consequences. When I looked at my little knife, I now saw the hole in the earth caused by mining the ore for it, and my imagination wondered about the men and their families who forged the steel, and the land that was cleared to gather the wood for the handle. Then there were the people who handled, packaged, and shipped the knife from god knows where. Now I didn’t just have a knife in my hand, I was working with the sharp edge of a long and complicated history. And now I was beginning to understand why the complexity of words on the Orphan Wisdom School website could not be understood if you skimmed. This work was about diving deep, and nothing in between.
I didn’t hear the gunshot at sunrise, but I heard tell that many did. Our learning about nourishment was not limited to the schoolroom, but extended to the kitchen. Nathalie prepared us for what was being offered: A sow they had raised had been shot so that we would eat today.
I asked Matthew about what had happened. He told me they awoke before dawn and that they had prayed to the sow, to the components of the gun, to the metal of the bullets. They were asking for their mercy and help so that we might eat and nourish all of the people. And then they shot her. Four of them held the sow in their arms, placed sweet fruit and tobacco on her tongue, gave their gratitude, and then sliced her neck and drained the blood from her body.
There was no ignoring the heaviness in the men and women who lived with this sow while she lay dying so that we could eat that night. I felt the burden of knowing I wasn’t hungry when I ate. And with the story of how the sow’s life was taken, I was brought closer. Closer to the chicken I ate the day before, closer to the fish I ate the next day, and even closer to the vegetables whose lives were taken so that I might live. And I was beginning to sniff out this concept of consequence. I looked at this food not as fuel, but as sustenance, and as something of the utmost value.
“The measure of our humanity is not so much in how we are with each other, but how we are with that which grants our lives. And I’m not talking about our parents or our grandparents. I’m talking about what sustains us… The irony is that when you deny the reciprocity between you and that which sustains you, your capacity to be humans suffers in direct proportion.”
The Honor of Burden
Matthew and Day had both used the term burden in a way that irked me. They used the word in a way that made no sense to my relationship with the term, and acted as if it represented an honor. I asked Stephen if he would let me in on the secret lexicon of the scholars who had completed his program, and he shared about the experience of constructing a yurt from Mongolia.
“One of the characteristics [of these structures] is that they don’t screw, nail, or fasten together. It is a very rickety affair when you put up the bones of the thing, which can be unnerving; you wonder how it could it be safe and not collapse on people. But once you put the felt (which can weight hundreds of pounds) on top, it instantly firms into place. It’s the burden that gives it the capacity to carry. The ability to carry is only in principle. It’s the power of the weight resting upon something that confirms its capacity to carry.”
I considered what it meant to be part of a family, an active part of a community. The joy that can come with the inconvenience of helping someone in need, because it exemplifies the capacity I have, and this new poetic definition sprouted in me, as I saw the honor in carrying the burden of life.
“Our burden is a consequence of the time we have been born into. It is crafted by the spirit of the time.”
Tending the Dishes
“Thank you for tending to the dishes,” the woman beside me spoke in a slow and easy tone, allowing the weight of what she said to change the experience for me. Eloquence was the currency at the Orphan Wisdom School. So now I wasn’t just doing an unavoidable chore at the end of the meal, but rather I was tending. The invitation was one of presence, meaning, and purpose. As if the dishes were alive, and deserved to be caressed, handled with care, spoken to, and thanked for carrying the weight of our food so that we might be nourished in a way that some of us may not have imagined as possible.
“Wherever I go, there I speak. I can’t go anywhere, nor can you, without speaking your way there—that’s how you arrive,” Stephen said. “It’s like the bow wave of a boat—it reaches the shore before you do. So language is an exquisite tool in which we are made. Our speaking helps us see the world we propose to approach. It is of consequence to tend the language.
“Many of the world’s religions have the understanding that the world was literally spoken, chanted, or sung into existence—from speech. It’s an amazing thought that is very prevalent in the world. So by virtue of our participation in speaking, we are in something vast, and conjuring, and alchemical. It has immense consequence.”
Stories Don’t Make Sense
“They are sense.
“It works like this: If I were to conceptualize with you for hours at a time with metaphors, it could be entertaining, but not very memorable or useful beyond its distraction. On the other hand, if I tell you a story in a way that is skillful, and the moment is well chosen, as is the story, the invitation is there—if there’s no seduction, there’s no pitch, and there’s no ‘sell.’
“A story doesn’t point somewhere else and say, What do you think? A story stands with its palms up, and says, Well, like this…
“Life is a storied proposition. Not a theoretical or hypothetical thing. It’s a storied thing. In that sense, story is deeply trustworthy. Because it seems to resemble the way life literally seems to unfold. Which is why the preliterate cultures (which is a terrible thing to call anybody) are principally oral cultures. Their entire means of reckoning and understanding, recognizing, relating, and loving are born along by Story. Story as a verb.
“We have this word rhythm in English. It’s related etymologically to arithmetic, and to rite or ritual. We have another word: tale, which is a synonym for story. But the verb form of tale is tally, the verb to count, or keep track of, or to commit to memory. All of these things are in both of these words. So when you speak things in a rhythmic fashion, it’s no surprise that the word arithmetic appears in the word. That’s what stories are: an arithmetic rendering of life—not to make sense, more to keep track; not to be too lost for too long, more to call somebody home who’s been out in the fog longer than it suits them. I believe in stories more than I believe in storytellers. If you study words, they’ll never let you down.”
It felt like Jenkinson was giving us everything he had to give. But at the end of the day, it wasn’t his words—but his way of living the consequence of his words—that was giving me courage. He was living proof that one could live at the edge of loss, fear, devastation, avoidance, resistance—and make it back. Not unscathed. Not without scars. But that when death and grief are given a place at the table, they add to the great banquet of life.
My sense of urgency
“The reason I feel deeply obligated to share this work is because inadvertently my little travail might have a consequence I might never intend. I’d rather make the mistake of hubris, thinking I have consequence and I don’t, rather than make this mistake of thinking I have no consequence when I inadvertently do. It’s a better mistake to make: to imagine with a certain degree of importance that things might happen if you are willing to put your paddle in the water, rather than sit on the shore, envying someone else who is paddling.”
“I believe in stories more than I believe in storytellers.”
The Final Day
This was the end of the first of four gatherings, each lasting five days, that will take place over two years. There was no message of what should be, or how we should act, or instruction about what we shouldn’t do. But there was a request—and it came in how we tended to the shavings of the spoon that we carved. Although we left the spoons on the altar at the garden, we took with us the consequence of our actions—the shavings. We took home with us a deeper understanding of the metaphor before us: As we spend our lives whittling ourselves into the shape and design of what we are to become, what we shave off in the process matters.
I also left with my attunement to words and language enlivened, with an introduction to meeting language as if I were a hunter. That which you hunt doesn’t throw itself into your path. It leaves behind hints that require skill to notice and imagination to decipher: a path only for those who have taken the time required to sniff out its existence.
In the documentary Griefwalker, Jenkinson turned to the audience he was speaking to and said, “I’m going to have to trust someone else with my children’s death. What do you think I’m doing here? I’m willing to proceed with the odds of failure being a hundred percent.
“No matter what you try to do, you will realize [the state of the world] is getting worse. Failure is really a code word for Are you willing to proceed to plant vineyards, knowing full well you will never drink the wine? You can’t turn this madness around in a lifetime. So it is a willingness to proceed that has no payday, no assurance, no sense of worth attached to it, and no heroism whatsoever. It requires the skill of being grateful for the things that don’t benefit you in the least, but benefit the world. Now you’re willing to live in a bigger story than your lifespan, or your children’s lifespan.
“Now we’re getting somewhere.”
“Grief is not how you feel … Grief is what you do.”