Orphan Wisdom

Last week I took my cousin and his wife to see Stephen Jenkinson’s “performance” here in Portland, Maine called “Nights of Grief and Mystery.” I warned them that it would be a really out-of-the box kind of experience and that they might not like it at all. However, I also know that there is something about what Jenkinson is about that’s been shaping and provocative for me. In fact, just last week, someone suggested I read him because of my own interest in marking endings.

I read both of Jenkinson’s books or at least most of the second Come of Age: The Case for Elderhood in a Time of Trouble before I got lost in his run on sentences and the incomprehensibility that is part of his writing. I stood in line after the performance in which Jenkinson read stories of his experiences working with others in the “death trade” as a palliative care social worker interspersed with dark, loud, odd and beautiful music.

I didn’t have a book for him to sign or a need for him to do so. Instead, I just wanted to kneel down as I did before his little card table in the dark, cavernous sanctuary of what had once been a Catholic Church, put out my hand and say “thank you.”

I told him I am grateful for what he is about. I told him I gave twenty copies of his book Die Wise away to people at my former church most of whom never finished it. That wasn’t the point I said, but that it provoked us to talk more openly and directly about death. Because of that book I started a men’s group for men who were terminally ill. That’s what Jenkinson does – provoke. Questions all the assumptions and phrases we use to talk about the process of dying and open it up to something that is much more uncontainable, incomprehensible, mysterious as dying is, as life is. Instead of focusing on “going into the light” or other ways we might choose to talk about dying, Stephen blows out the candle and has us look starkly into the dark, the grief, the pain, the agony, truth and yes beauty of it that we are mortal and it somehow makes life all the more precious and worth living because we are.

All week long here along the Saco River the great tree on the bank has been shedding its golden leaves across the lawn. On the left branch of the tree the remaining leaves now a rusty brown, tanned leather. The branch on the right now completely stripped of leaves. I have loved the fall colors these past weeks, the brilliant red, gold and orange. And today loving the bare limbed branches as well. That part of me wanting and not wanting to be stripped bare to what is essential, to what is revealed when the covers are thrown back, to this mysterious darkness descending into winter.

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