I am going to the Ottawa Valley on January 26, to join The Old Man’s People for a nose-to-nose conversation with Death. What fun! I honestly have no idea quite what I will be doing there, but it just seems to be what I need to do.
I have been advised by the instructor, Stephen Jenkinson, to read Beowulf beforehand and to bring a few seashells, a small piece of flint or chert (what is chert?), a piece of leather no bigger than my lap, and three gifts. Snowshoes and an ice-fishing rod are optional.
I met Stephen at Hollyhock. He was a presenter there, leading a course called A Master Class in Dying – and I went to the free talk he gave. It left me shaking. I have never heard anyone speak like he does – he has anÂ touch of the old-school preacher about him, and a lot of other peculiar influences. But god, he is courageous – and the fire and brimstone seems to come straight from the heat of his own conviction. To me, that conviction rings so true that it is irresistable.
The conviction seems to me, to be: that death is here, it is there, it is always and everywhere. It is as Stephen says, the cradle of the love of life. Death is so beautiful and terrible and it informs every moment of our breathing lives. Stephan says “grief is the act of loving what has already passed” – so to grieve, is to fully revel in every fleeting micromoment, regardless of its quality, because that moment is already – gone.
Gate gate paragate, parasumgate bodhi so ha! Gone, gone beyond, gone way beyond that, awake! so be it. My favourite mantra, and ain’t it just so.
So then, welcoming death into life, and always aspiring to be prepared for its arrival. As Ajahn Sohna said to me with a gentle laugh when i asked him, in a spasm of existential crisis, how can i confront death? As I age, my body ages, my fertility is gone, my parents die, and death stops being a romantic idea or a t-shirt slogan and becomes…real? What should I do?” And he laughed, and said, “practice.”
So I am all about practicing for death. And if I can take a wild guess I think this is, as close as I can anticipate, what we will be doing in the Ottawa Valley. Practicing to support people of our own age, as our previous generation of ancestors pass on. Practicing to support others in grief. Practicing how to best support people around us as they themselves are dying. Practicing how to teach our children about death. Practicing to be with the people I love as they pass. And practicing to die, and to model death for others.
Stephen says, that he has seen many people die in great fear and anxiety. He says, it doesn’t have to be that way – and there is lots of evidence that that is true.
I do not know if I will continue to follow Stephen, or if this odd little adventure has any definable goals. I’m not so sure I will like ice-fishing.
But I do know this:
I know I don’t want to die with poison on my lips and fear in my eyes.
I don’t want to die bearing guilt or recrimination or anger or blame.
I don’t want to die knowing i never really faced my shit, or said the words I needed to say.
I don’t want to die knowing that I let timidity, or doubt, or worst of all, worry about what other people would think – stop me from following my awakened heart.
And I sure as fuck don’t want to die thinking about money.
So. Now I have two weeks to read Beowulf and find a fishing rod, because I am going to the Ottawa Valley to do a study with Stephen Jenkinson, in Orphan Wisdom. I really don’t have any clear idea of what it will be like, or what i hope to “get out of it.” But I am curious, and I surely would not want to die knowing I didn’t check it out.