To Craft a Gift out of the Breaking of Our Hearts
On meeting Stephen Jenkinson – and the talk I gave in Sigtuna
“It’s only imperative that I leave you a message because I might not see you again. Something could intervene between now and the end of October and this might be the last conversation we ever have. I think this about most of my conversations with the people I know. And when I don’t, that’s when I say uncaring things, or forget their context and only think of mine. So when I think, ‘Well, I might not ever speak to my friend Dougald again,’ that makes me feel terribly sad, and then it makes me want to be really kind, and also to explain things to the best of my ability – and then to make a joke about it!”
— from a voice messageleft me the other day
We’ve been a double-act for twelve years this summer, Anna and I. We’ve seen our share of adventures, wild and humble; we’ve met and worked with more than our share of remarkable human beings, but I’ve rarely known anyone to leave so deep an impression on this woman with whom I share my life as Stephen Jenkinson did last week.
The photo above was taken to send to a mutual friend at the end of our lunch together at the Climate Existence conference in Sigtuna. Before that, Jenkinson had been two hours on stage, in conversation with the Swedish author Anita Goldman – and that evening, he would be back up there for another two hours with the songwriter Gregory Hoskins, as part of their Nights of Grief and Mystery tour. “It's a young man's game, this,” he said with a shake of his head. So I was honoured that he had rolled out of bed at six thirty so as to make it to Sigtuna in time for my talk that morning.
If you read Jenkinson’s books or listen to him speak, you’ll recognise that this is a man who weighs the cost of his words. His style can take some getting used to: he does not make suggestions or claims, he deals in wonderings and allegations. Before he came to be known as an author and culture activist, he worked in the “death trade”, leading a non-medical team at a Canadian hospital whose task was to work with the dying and those around them. He uses language with an awareness that any word might be our last.
His book Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul starts from the allegation that North America has become a “death-phobic” society: its dominant culture so desperate to avoid the reality of finitude that it makes a new kind of hell out of dying, by withholding the truth of what is taking place. Well, as I wrote somewhere else, “Somehow we all live in America, because it fills our ears, spills out of screens and teaches us how to dream.” And if only for these reasons, those of us who live elsewhere may recognise a good deal of our own societies in Jenkinson’s description.
The part that struck home with Anna, last week, was his willingness to be heartbroken, to name this and to let it stand at the centre of his way of being. His insistence that heartbreak is not to be mistaken for depression or despair, that there might be a skill in allowing our hearts to break, that to be heartbroken might be an act of consequence and a part of the work of culture.
When Anna and I started dreaming a school called HOME into being, what I’d gleaned of Jenkinson’s Orphan Wisdom school offered a glimpse of the possibility that we might come to constellate our work around such a teaching house. More than once in the writing of At Work in the Ruins, I found myself walking paths that he had trodden before me: there’s a chapter early in the book where I draw on Die Wise to wonder about the denial of mortality and the way it clouds our ability to look clearly at the trouble the world is in, not least the part of that trouble that rides under the name of climate change – or “climate sorrow”, as Jenkinson worded it to us in Sigtuna. So it felt appropriate that he should be the honoured guest at this particular gathering, which was in other ways a moment of taking the book home.
Climate Existence is a small conference – there were sixty of us this time around – and because of its scale and the spirit in which it is organised, I have found it a rare setting, where people who might not otherwise have met engage seriously with what each other has to say, and we come to see what we are talking about in new ways as a consequence. To give just one example, it was here in 2018 that I first met Vanessa Machado de Oliveira and began an ongoing conversation that fed into both Hospicing Modernity and my own book.1
This year’s conference was no exception. Besides Jenkinson and myself, the speakers included a former Deputy Prime Minister of Sweden, a representative of the national church, and a Sami environmental historian who brought painful images of the destruction of landscape and culture that massive wind power projects are bringing to Indigenous lands in northern Sweden. The talk I gave was a chance to honour the gifts I’ve received at these gatherings, to respond to the weight of what had been spoken by others during our time together, and to place our conversations within a larger weave, a consciousness of cost and consequence, what it might mean to live at the end of a world and contribute to the possibility of worlds to come.2
And now it’s the third week in August. This morning, Alfie went back to school, Anna left for her first day at a new job, working for the neighbouring municipality – and I found myself back at my desk, looking out over the work that may yet be done in what remains of 2023.
After all the public conversations which marked the publication of At Work in the Ruins, it seems I’ve arrived at a season of giving talks. This Saturday, I will be at Albertslund Library on the outskirts of Copenhagen for a symposium called Fire, Earth, Water, Air, Words. In late September, I’m due to speak in Västerås Cathedral – and then, in early December, there’s an invitation to Amsterdam for the G10 festival.
The smart move would be to have a script up my sleeve that works for all occasions, but I don’t know how to work that way. Instead, each setting calls out some new weave of themes and stories particular to the invitation; yet, out of this work, there’s a trust that things are born which may just outlast the occasion. So through these talks and the essays I envisage writing here on Substack in the months ahead, I shall look to pick up a few of the threads which got edged aside in the writing of the book, and to bring into view the things I’ve caught sight of as a consequence of the places it has taken me, the ways I am being changed by the encounters it has led me into.
Thank you for sharing some part of this wandering with me – and especially to those of you whose subscriptions contribute to making this undertaking in some way viable.
And that brings me to one further thing that I recognise in Stephen Jenkinson’s work and in those I’ve met who have studied with him: together with the willingness to be heartbroken, among the consequences of that willingness, there is a cultivation of gratitude, deep and flowing, like an old spring uncovered and brought back into life after many years. May you drink of the sweet waters of gratitude, then – and may we all learn to craft a gift out of the breaking of our hearts.
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Here’s the video of Vanessa’s talk at the 2018 event. (She appeared under the name that she uses when publishing in academic contexts, Vanessa Andreotti.)
In the description of the video on YouTube, I’ve added some notes to explain the references to other speakers. The conversation between Stephen Jenkinson and Anita Goldman was also livestreamed by the organisers, though it seems that a good deal of it was lost due to technical problems. You can watch the part that was recorded here.