Around the Bend
Life has been busy lately. I have failed at carving out time for the little things like keeping up with email and reading and writing. One theme that is just below the surface these days, is an understanding of the Individual’s impermanence, that one will inevitably be swept away down the river. But, the good news is, it is the river that is the thing. You stick your foot in the river, and you feel the tug of the currents: this one fast and warm, that one slow and cool. In life, we are these currents, flowing together, mingling, becoming something identifiable and satisfying while also becoming the river itself.
Death has been on my mind lately. Dad passed about a year back, and the Reaper has expressed an interest in the health of another loved one. I am not opposed to Death. We’re all going to get there. Life, the abused cliché reminds us, is the journey and not the destination. I’ll be forty in January. One can read that as the half way mark. I want to pull over and look around. Close at hand, I see my toddler Son, his eyes wide with the possibilities and joys of life, his future for him to know and hopefully to share with his old man. And, not far off, I see my Father, whom my Son will ever know through stories, mainly told by me. Stories I mainly lack. And, yonder still, my own Grandfather, whom I know mainly through the most exaggerated of stories.
We all come from somewhere, and we are all headed somewhere. This bend in the River knows only a short ways upstream, toward the various and contradictory legends of the Wellsprings, and only a short ways ahead, toward the various legends of the Delta, where we believe the River as we have ever understood it will cease as it merges with the Great Ocean.
The August issue of The Sun Magazine brought with it an interview with Stephen Jenkinson, whom some call “The Death Whisperer” … he packs a lot of great ideas that resonate with me into eight pages. Not bad. What follows is a bit of perspective on the idea of one’s influences.
Hoffner: Who would you say are your influences?
Jenkinson: Anyone who claims to know his or her influences probably doesn’t. I think our influences are a lot subtler than we think. For example, I was born nine years after the closing of Auschwitz and the bombing of Hiroshima half a world away. When those soldiers came home from World War II suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder before we had a name for it, North America created the suburbs for them. I grew up in the unacknowledged presence of those wartime horrors: Auschwitz on the one side, Hiroshima on the other, and the suburbs in the middle. That’s an influence on me.
As a child I was read to every night. Before I even understood the words, I was carried along by the momentum of the human voice. The pageant of the story has its way with you, even if its not in a language you can comprehend. Story is a sublime practice that makes us recognizable to ourselves.
These days I admire the songwriter Leonard Cohen, my countryman and a polestar in the firmament for anyone who has faith in human eloquence. Eloquence is a conjuring; it’s magic, and Cohen is a servant as well as a practitioner and a repository of that magic. He’s a patron saint of the Orphan Wisdom School, unawares. I don’t know what kind of life he lives, but it’s inconceivable to me that those songs might come from a duplicitous nature. In a country that appreciated its artists, he would be a national treasure and wouldn’t have to work five minutes in his life unless he was so inclined. As it is he’s been on the road for years trying to make back all the money his manager stole from him.
I met another of my influences at Harvard. As a young man I was on fire with learning about the historical Jesus. I didn’t come from a religious background, but I applied to Harvard Divinity School and got in. I was determined to be a preacher of some sort. I don’t know what else you could do with that kind of education. At the divinity school I met a fellow who was the living incarnation of a stereotypical televangelist: power-blue suit that didn’t fit so good: too-tight white shirt that was popping its buttons. He was in charge that year of vocational counsel. I told him I planned to get a master of divinity and become a pastor or a minister. He asked me the name of my sponsoring congregation, and I said I hadn’t worked that out yet. Then he asked my denominational affiliation. I told him I didn’t have one. “Son, where do you go to church?” he asked. I said that I didn’t, and he asked, “Well, where did you go to church, then?” No answer. So he said, “Let me understand this: you propose to go into the ministry, and you’ve never been to church?” “Yes sir,” I replied. “Well, I nev-uh,” he said, just like that. I was three questions into my vocational interview, and I was done.
My career as a preacher came to an end at that moment. I was counseled to register for a master of theological studies — a layperson’s degree — instead. That same week I met a preaching instructor whose name was Hugh Morgan Hill, but everyone knew him as Brother Blue. He was a vibrant speaker in the African American tradition. He said I should be in his class. I told him I’d already been counseled out of the master of divinity program. “Nobody needs to know,” he said. On my way to his first class I picked up a harmonica. The class had already begun when I got there, and Professor Hill was in full flight. He was a great storyteller and performer. For some reason I started to play my harmonica along with what he was doing, just improvising.
The next week his wife phoned and asked if I’d come with him to a church service — and bring my harmonica.
I performed with Hill on and off for seven years. It was an unofficial apprenticeship. We traveled all over the U.S. and Canada. This was the era of school integration, remember, and there were race riots in some cities, but since we were together, we were OK. He was a holy man from the ghettos of the American heartland. Virtually everything he did in the world was self-initiated. He never seemed to have a job description. He carved it out every time he stood up to speak. I learned from him the importance of proceeding without the green light, the red carpet, the Get Out of Jail Free card. I was emboldened by his example when I was working in palliative care, because I realized that if I was going to serve these dying people well, then I couldn’t wait for anyone to ask me to do it. And if I’m going to serve the era I’ve been born into well, then I can’t wait for approval and recognition. I’m going to have to proceed without it. If it comes, it comes; if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. That, and a lot more, is what I got from him.
Brother Stephen articulates a lot of ideas about Life and Death. Ideas I am still digesting. But I suppose I can share some notes.
To be Alive is to be In Debt to Death. Everything we have, everything … the food we eat day after day, the clothes we wear, the fuel we use to get around … animals and plants, and if you think about it, the Solar energy that fuels All Of It comes from the slow annihilation of the Sun, as its atoms fuse into ever heavier elements. “What will your death feed?”
The Debt is non-negotiable and it will be re-paid.
“Grief is not sadness. There’s sadness in grief, but grief is not exhausted when the sadness goes away. … Sadness has a shelf life, but grief endures …” I picture a small pot, held over the flame of death. The sadness bubbles and splatters and evaporates. The pot is withdrawn from the flame. There is a residue left over. That residue is grief. It does not boil away. You paint with it. You leave a mark somewhere so that when one needs a reminder that “this too shall pass” they may thus be reminded. This paragraph is painted with grief. I hope it feeds your wisdom.
In the interview, Jenkins has a riff about the need for an element missing in our culture: the Rite of Passage in which childhood ends and adulthood begins. A consumer culture derives better profits from a population that is not asked to Grow Up: You Deserve More and More!! His critique resonates but I disagree with the idea that a Rite must “kill off childhood” … on the very next page he explains that it is misguided to shelter children from the idea of death … I think that Childhood is maybe what lends Death its greatest contrast. Young and full of possibility and very self-involved … adults should not be so self-involved, the grown ups must labor to pay the interest on our life debt … but we still need to grow and learn. While we would prefer for grownups to not be self-involved narcissists we need also ask them to be sufficiently self-involved, and other involved, to cultivate their self awareness.
Other involved is what we ask of a child, and what we give a child, when we share with them the fact of Death. Children can appreciate Wisdoms, just as Adults can appreciate Wonders.
A last thought, while I sat in my favorite coffee shop, taking and making these notes, and watching an Old Man drink in the Joyful Clown Antics of some toddlers across the way, was that nursing homes really ought to co-locate with nurseries. Children bring Life into the Room. Elders bring Life as well. The children are starting from scratch, painting with incoherent vitality. The elders have taken their lives, chipped away at it, and produced works of art, called Lives. Day by day, they reveal these works to the children: some are beautiful, some are perplexing, some are sad, and some are horrible. The children react, embrace, reject, imitate, and iterate. Culture ensues, and the river flows enriched.