Steven Jenkinson – Die Wise


Last night, October 6,2015 I was able to attend Steven Jenkinson’s talk on the occasion of his first book tour in New York City for Die Wise – A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul. He was accompanied most ably on Washburn guitar by Gregory Hoskin who provided a subdued musical counterpoint to Steven’s speech throughout the hour and a half talk.

The talk began with a little excursion into grammar. Steven mentioned that our thoughts are formed by our language and that “to die” is a verb. Verbs  have tenses and in English there are only three, which was, he said with his sly humor, maybe why we are so tense. And that verbs have two voices, active and passive. He challenged us to go home and to think of how to use the verb “to die” in the passive voice. I sat there puzzling at it : “To become died…” did not seem quite right.

He later said that to die is only active. We are dying (present continuous for my grammar fundamentalist friends).

He then told a few stories from the book about people who somehow miss the fact that they were, or are dying. He notes throughout that our culture is death phobic. We flee it. We refrain from talking about it, in what he terms “death voodoo” as if our mentioning dying may cause the thing mentioned to come to pass sooner. The stories he read straight out of the book.

One was of a man, a psychiatrist, who had exhausted all the limits of his cancer therapy and wanted palliative care to be there at there right time to sedate his passage. The Woody Allen solution, “I don’t mind dying, I just don’t want to be there.”  Here was a man who missed that he had been in the process of dying since the fatal diagnosis and yet fled first into the arms of the various “therapies” intended to put off dying, and then into the silver bullet of sedation.

The parallels with my own situation broke me down. That indeed I met Rosanne in March 2011, after her fatal diagnosis of ALS in December 2010, and despite that I committed to accompany her on her journey of dying. I have seen at close quarters the fleeing into therapies, the refusing to talk about death, the holding off almost too long in telling her family and the lack of being able to be there for family as an aide to grief.

In a second vocabulary lesson he mentioned that the root of “palliative” is the Latin “pallare” meaning to cloak. And it is related to the English words “appalling” and “pallbearer”, one who bears that which cloaks the body.

He talked about a pastor who was on oxygen and supportive breathing machine who still preached every week. And when asked if he spoke about dying with his parishioners, he said “Oh no, too scary.” And Steven realized that he had a sacred duty to challenge this pastor and gently prod him into another way. “Didn’t the man who you preach about know he was dying? And did he hid it from his disciples? I don’t think he did. Isn’t the Last Supper this teaching of dying? Take this and eat, it is my dying; take this and drink, for it is my dying.”

He spoke of the stages of grief, and his dislike for the moral imperative to get to the “Acceptance” stage.He said “I spit a hairball every time I have to say that word: Acceptance.” This is in harmony with what I think, that all the stages are not definitive stopping points on a path but eddies in the stream of our mind’s dealing with the loss, to be visited again and again. He says that there is no rule in dying that you have to accept your death. You will die, but how you die is a choice.

Which of course brought to my mind Dylan Thomas’ poem:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

With these stories he pointed last night  obliquely away from the death phobic culture, and yet in his discourse the outlines of the death embracing alternative culture remained elusive for me. I believe that this is the positive side, that he probably reaches somewhat further in the book than I have read so far, and in his Orphan Wisdom School.

A personal quest perhaps to find how I can live my dying: awake, aware and with compassion for those who may mourn my loss.

Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul


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