Tag Archives: stephen jenkinson

Elders are MADE

For over ten years now, I have been contemplating the nature of elders, elderhood, and the near absence of what I have come to believe is essential to carry forward as a culture that has some semblance of sanity and some glimmer of what is needed to live in right relation with these lands we call home. Mostly due to fortune and receiving, and a little to my own tenacity and intense hunger, I have found myself in the company of numerous true elders… many elderly (or “olders”) too. By now, I know the difference. And I have some sense of what is needed to engage in, now, in this time in my late-thirties first-half-of-life grappling, to set myself on the path to be an elder one day.

I have, through the winds of fortune, been gifted to have the opportunity to attend the Orphan Wisdom School, founded by Stephen Jenkinson and elder of these times. I encountered him September of 2015 on Wisconsin Public Radio one morning as I drove the 8 minute drive in my car to the hospital, on one of the mornings that I didn’t ride my bike, and one of the mornings that I didn’t listen to Pandora, and one of the mornings that I wasn’t running 10 minutes behind, the day before he was doing a rather once-in-a-very-great-while presentation in Madison the next day on his book Die Wise. The man with the well-considered words spoke of the death phobia of our Western culture and the work of dying well. Being intentional with the dying time already had it’s grip on me after two years of chaplaincy and I knew the voice of an elder when I heard him. Those eight minutes changed my life. Funny how this happens when we are paying attention.

Three years later, I was able to enroll in perhaps one of the last classes of OWS that Stephen may lead and it just so happens that the man who I came to because he was an elder well-versed and well-schooled by attending to the dying in their final days, has written a book on what it might mean to be an elder and what has come to pass that we live in a world where elders are so hard to come by. The book, Come of Age, feels like holding a treasure, like “sacred text” for the world we live in (much like Bill Plotkin’s Nature and the Human Soul felt like when I began immersing myself in it). These kinds of books live in a category of their own. They can’t be categorized, unless bookstores had a shelf called “Books that will F*** you up” or “You will no longer be the same” or “Books that will leave you running for cover only to lead you out to change the world.”

With that here is a beginning of hopefully an endless address on the need for elders and the shit-storm that is Western civilization without elders and so many elderLY. Stephen writes:

There are young people, hosts of them, watching the self-absorbed bulge of boomers passing from this mortal coil bedraggled and betrayed by the old promises of limitless potential and self-actualization and personal growth, and retirement savings plans. They see the retreat centres full of retreating, the gated communities full of retiring, just at the time when everything points from bad to worse, from anger to apathy, from vexation to the vast, vast extinction of What For? A good many of these young witnesses seem full of disdain. They rightfully are, but secretly they seem to be wishing they are wrong about the old people in their midst. Some part of their grievance wants to be wrong. With no faith that can stand the tests of the market place, still some of them seem not quite capable of going it alone, or of wanting to go it alone, another youth cult, the Sixties again.

They don’t have generations anymore. That’s already gone. They have decades instead. The breathless ramping up of change, of excess and extirpation, of chronic must-havery and limitless gadgetry, drives many of them to polygamy and peyote and the business casual, gold star, private priority lane of anything. “Is there anybody out there?” they are asking “Is there anybody to ask?” How has it come to pass in the era of more old people per square kilometer than the world has ever seen here in the dominant culture of North America they have so few elders? Has it ever been like this? Where’s the wisdom? Has it always been like this?

…And this…

The smart money, the dot-com money, is on eternity, cancer-free life, and Mars. You know it is. And that programme is being driven and funded by people in their thirties and forties, trying to engineer a better deal than aging while there’s still time. You know that’s where modernity is headed, if it has its way. It banishes elderhood. It leaves behind what can’t keep up. It sneers at limit.

I am one of those young people asking, “Is there anybody out there?!?” Who can I come to with my wonderings and sightings of how things came to be the way they are? It is my generation that will design the tech to defeat death all together. It is my generation that will find a way to live without limit, to use and use and use, to consume the lollipops of the digital world. We will make experiences virtual, intelligence artificial, and the olders who could have been elders if they would have only been shown how by generations before will be left behind.

But not in my corner of this land. Not in my family. Because I will have spent the years inviting those who can be the elders for my children to be elders, speaking to them about what my boys will need one day and organizing opportunities for us as adults to be with youth. I will have spent years showing up and welcoming the young people to wonder with me and to me. I will have conjured elderhood to those who are going out from this world, telling them that they can still step up, better late than never. It will be harder for the olders because truthfully, elderhood is not something that is granted simply by age but is granted by those who come to you and this takes time, energy, commitment, showing up, and an adamant “No thank you” or even “Fuck YOU!” to the American Dream for retirement. Elders are MADE, people. They are made by the sands and the waters, the winds and the rains, the grasses and the stones, the scores of young people that they invite into their company until their ears drip with trouble and their hearts ache with grieving. Elderhood takes time and forethought. Start now. Study those who have been doing it and dream big. Humanity depends on it.

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“Let other people say the hopeful stuff”

“Stuff” wasn’t really the word he used. “Let other people say the hopeful shit” was what he said. “You can leave that to them, and then sometimes you’ll probably want to shoot them between the eyes. Your task now is to feel what this feels like, to be troubled by it, and to get yourself into the meaning-making business. See, everyone wishes they didn’t have to go through something like this, they ask why did it have to happen to you. Well, it didn’t happen to you. You are standing upright and healthy. You didn’t get this. You’re son did, and he didn’t ask for it. This is his life now and you have to walk it alongside him and help him make meaning of it.”

Not even three weeks after learning of Brendan’s diagnosis of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, I traveled to Ontario, Canada to attend the first session of the Orphan Wisdom School 2017. I didn’t go to get more information. I’m up to my eyeballs in information and I have more than enough to live out my days well-enough informed and able to talk like I know something about something. What I did go there for was to learn, and especially to learn from Stephen Jenkinson, an elder in the truest sense of the word. I have been lucky enough (or perhaps foolish enough) to have a keen nose for elders and to know one when I see one. I think it has something to do with the lines in their faces that come from something, or somewhere, more than age. There are those who carry enough intention, clarity, and wisdom that being in their presence is enough for me. Stephen is one of these such elders.

Stephen told us we were there to learn, which he defined as the unbidden and unsought encounter with unwelcome things… things we already know. This learning, he said, is expensive because it is incredibly costly. We were told that we were under no obligation to know anything. We don’t have to know anything in particular to learn. But there was an expectation that we would learn… though tracking with his stories and his roundabout way of getting to the point was an exercise in and of itself. Stephen said he doesn’t care about our inability to feel able. He cares about us, not our disability. The feeling of not being able is an assurance that nothing happens. 

So when I approached Stephen to talk to him about the trouble that I carry with me and the burden on my heart, I offered that it may not be a good time as he had just talked for three hours. But he paused with me and opened the door. I wept (it was the second time that day already). On my better days, or perhaps my worse days, I try to be a hopeful person. I tried to rally my emotions and said, “I know. We have a lot of life left to live. I will still teach him what it means to be a man, will still make many memories, will still introduce him to a village and to elders he can learn from. It’s not over yet.”

And I’m sure, knowing what he was seeing me do, he essentially told me to cut that shit out.

The lesson is that I don’t have to be hopeful. Hope takes me away from the present. It is not real. What is real is what is happening now and the only way to speak of trouble, to make it real and tangible and to allow it to form me, is to let it shake me to my bones. Sometimes our blood needs to run cold just to feel what it feels like and so we can know what it feels like to get warm again.

Dying well… one of the most important things you can do

This is a general summary of a talk I did at First Congregational Church in Oshkosh, WI on November 27th, 2016. It is part of a three part series on End of Life, Dying, and living into the seasons of Life.

We are going to be talking about dying and end of life. Please sit with that for a moment. What does it do to you? What feelings rise up in you as you consider the end of your life or the idea and reality of death?

There are a few things I do not know, a few things I do know, and a few things I have seen enough that I am very convinced of. What I do not know is what will happen after I die. I mean, really, how can I know this for certain?!? Yes, I guess there are stories of those who have died and come back. You can believe what you want to about them, but I’m not certain. What I do know is that death happens only once and it is as much a part of life as being born. It is literally woven into the fabric of the Earth. I also know that life itself is dependent on death. The very soil that feeds the plants that feed the animals and so on is made up of dead material. This gives me, as a Nature guy, significant meaning. My body is going to become compost one day and is going to give life to other living beings! This may not work for you. That’s ok. We each have our ways of making meaning of this experience, and that is what we are talking about.

The thing I am thoroughly convinced of is this: Over the course of our lives, we are putting together a story of what it is going to be like when it is our time. Both positive AND negative. Every experience we have affects how we will feel about our own death. So if we have loved ones who have died with pain and suffering or afraid and resentful, this is going into our consideration that this is what death will be like. If we have people we know who have died with grace, peace, and surrounded by those who they love, this will be added to our story. THIS is why how we go about our dying is perhaps THE most important thing in our entire lifespan that we can offer to those who come after us. This affects our community, our family, generations to come. Stories (the stories that future dying ones tell themselves) are told about us!

Stephen Jenkinson says that dying is never an individual event. Every death is a community event and it has ripples that extend farther than we can fathom. For generations to come and, depending on what you believe, from ancestors before. We get one chance to do it right… or I would say, well enough.

If you could put your experience into five words, how would you do that?

You’ll have to bear with me as I try to put these things in linear form. I am used to talking about these things with one person or a family and they come in response to their own story. Each idea comes with 45 minutes of dialog and our time is so limited here. So I am offering a few ideas and hoping some of them are helpful.

It used to be that people would die in the upstairs bedroom with family all around. It was more of a natural thing. But now it happens behind closed doors and the doctor comes out and tells the family that grandma has passed. So a lot of people don’t know what to expect and what might happen. The perspective you’ll get from a chaplain is much different perhaps than one you’d get from a doctor. I think we have to remember, and I tell patients this all the time, doctors are trained to heal. It is their mission to fix. I have seen there really is as much variety of feelings about end of life, and levels of comfortability, in doctors as there are in patients and families. You’d think that if a doctor is around death so often, they’d be more comfortable with it but this is not always true. But dying is not something to be fixed. I hear from medical staff, “So and so is depressed. She wants to die. Call the chaplain and get her some antidepressants.” But so often this is someone who is 95 years old and is all alone! I tell her she has every good reason to want to die. This is ok. Sometimes our spirits and our minds are ready to go but the body is hanging on.

Some people say we should live until we are dead. They don’t want to know about their dying. So they want to go out in their sleep or end their life prematurely. Stephen Jenkinson says it’s not the being dead they are afraid of but the dying. “How connected is someone to their life when they have to be told they are dying,” he says. I have said it before and will say it many times, dying happens to all health, mature, and connected to the Earth beings. It is a physical AND a spiritual experience and the more connected we are to the NATURAL way of things, the more we will be prepared for our own death. But that is the topic for the next talk.

Death defines me

The title should perhaps read, Death (Re)defines Me and Us. As a chaplain, and perhaps more specifically, as a human with my particular “Soulcraft,” I think about death daily. It happens to be my road in life to walk alongside those who are dying, wonder with them what death asks of them and of us, and to seek to understand death as best I can. As Stephen Jenkinson teaches, if we didn’t have death, we wouldn’t have life as we experience it. Our appreciation for a flower is very much affected by the knowledge that this particular flower will not be here forever. Our appreciation of the summer is only in the context that summer will change into fall and then into winter. Death does not have to equal trauma, death does not have to equal “giving up,” and death does not have to equal bad. Death IS real and we all will come to our time when it is our time.

My body will nourish the earth one day. I will become the literal compost of new and becoming life.

The difficulty of describing how this lands in my life is palpable. Living and dying is such an individual experience. Each of us has our own take… and to assume I know what it is like for another is ludicrous.And yet, we are so connected. So connected. We as humans have done the earth wrong in a million different ways by forgetting this, by living as if our living and dying is not part of the bigger thing.

For me, I want my to be as aware of my dying as possible. I will tell any who will listen (and perhaps some who won’t) what it is like and how it is to die. Especially my children, and those who I am blessed to elder in their growing and learning. Perhaps one of the greatest gifts I can leave behind is what it is like to go through this particularly individual and uncharted territory, so that when they go through their dying time, they might remember one who has been there before.

I forget sometimes, in any given moment, that I might not be alive in the next moment. Unlikely, perhaps, but things can change in an instant and we do ourselves and others we are blessed to journey with, a deep service to remember this. Life and death, both are good and beautiful things. As Richard Rohr says, “Everything belongs.”

My body will nourish the earth one day. I will become the literal compost of new and becoming life. This is where I belong in the circle of life. The earth gives me life and one day I will give her life. What does this do to us to feel this? To know it deep in our bones as we walk this land? In the depth of our lungs as we breath into our being? To eat our food, each plant and animal having had to die to sustain us?