I don’t know if this has been written about before, but in Tom Schulman’s original screenplay for The Dead Poets Society, the brilliant defiant teacher (Robin Williams) had terminal cancer. He knew he was dying, so he wasn’t worried about his long-term teaching prospects. In that freedom, he could step forward to defy the lies and vicious hypocrisy that were literally eating his young students alive.
I know this because Tommy Schulman was a friend of mine back then, one of a loose herd of young (ish) film students, roaming around Hollywood with our screenplays. When Peter Weir, signed on to direct, he took that death thing out. He said people who weren’t dying could do amazing things too. Well, of course. But I always thought Weir must have told Robin Williams the truth about the character. I think that was the truth that made him so strong and brilliant and beloved.
So let’s talk about death. Not as a sad, spooky apparatus for whisking us off the stage to make room for the next show. Lets talk about death as an event uniquely inculcated with the possibility of doing some brilliant good for ourselves and for the people we love. I’m thinking about this because I’ve recently stumbled upon Stephen Jenkinson who speaks with such intelligent optimism about the spirituality of death. (I stumbled on him in the Sun Magazine where a lot of my best stumbling happens.) Let me just put in here that although I am intrigued and excited by what Jenkinson says, I sure don’t want to be insensitive to anyone who’s in the throws of dying or losing a loved one. If any of this comes off insensitive, please let me know. Going forward, I’ll make it obvious in the title if the subject is “death,” so you can easily skip it.
Ok, for those still with me, there’s a documentary about Stephen Jenkinson called Griefwalker. It tells the story of how Jenkinson got a masters of theology at Harvard and then moved to Canada and got a masters in Social Work. He spent five years as Director of Palliative Care at a big progressive Hospice in Toronto. And at the end of those years he just couldn’t keep on because when he looked into the eyes of nearly all of his patients, what he saw was a look of anguished terror. And Stephen Jenkinson thought, “We’ve got to do better than this.”
The doing-better he came up with has a lot of aspects – religious rites and rituals gleaned from indigenous religions, the notion that good deaths grow from good lives, and especially the understanding that death is ripe with opportunity. Jenkinson advises that as we grow older, keeping death on the front burner of our consciousness sweetens our days by reminding us how precious each one is. That makes a lot of sense to me. If the house is awash in Halloween candy, I can eat through all of it and not enjoy a bite. But if a storm washes out the road and we’re left with a single Bon Bon – PRECIOUS.
After watching Griefwalker, I felt intensely my own limited time, and it made me so grateful for everything. Without really trying, I fell into noticing, in beautiful and nuanced detail, all kinds of ordinary things around me – not just my aunt’s crystal vase, but the fabulous colors in a basket of dirty clothes I’d been trying to ignore. It was effortless to become transfixed by the beauty of the moment – time really slowed.
The next morning all that was gone. I had stuff to do, like deal with Amazon customer service about how come they ate all my kindle books!? I had been struggling with this for weeks and now they had scheduled an official “chat” – not exactly the kind of thing that makes me grateful to be alive. I had been approaching this problem by writing a brilliant speech about the good old days of Kindle when you could get a live human on the phone, 24/7! I had delivered it a few times to various customer service personnel.
But this morning that attitude didn’t show up. Instead, in deference to the notion that all moments are precious, I made myself a nice cup of tea and sat in a comfortable chair where I could see a melaleuca tree blooming out my window. I had a pile of busywork to ward off fury, just in case I got put on hold. The tree out my window was being entertained by a lovely breeze, its little, white, bottle-brush flowers, tossing about like Christmas morning. I noticed that.
These Amazon chats aren’t actually chats, they’re just typing back and forth on the computer. So I started “chatting” with Sheppa; his polite English made me think he was in India. He thanked me effusively for my patience. And I, realizing he was probably in a hot, crowded, Indian call center, thanked him with real sincerity for helping me.
Outside my window, the breeze in the melaleuca made me think that maybe Sheppa might not be in a hot Indian call center, but working remotely. I could just see him on a laptop in a quiet village, working diligently as his young son played nearby. I imagined this pretty clearly. As usual on these chats, we would get disconnected from time to time, but Sheppa kept coming back, and thanking me for my patience and I would thank him and the breezes kept blowing the melaluca flowers. For two hours, he escorted me though the back rooms and hidden crevices of my Amazon Accounts and iPad settings, trying this and that, to no avail. Finally he decided that I needed to speak to someone higher up. He thanked me for my patience and I thanked him for his, and he was gone.
“Awaiting call – 1 minute,” typed up on my screen. I waited 20 minutes, watching the breeze in the trees and catching up on paperwork. The call never came. But I had an idea. In his attempt to solve my problem, Sheppa had taken me so deeply into the recesses of my accounts and settings, and I had been paying attention, which is something I never do during these excursions. So it occurred to me that maybe I could fix my own problem. I had a notion about how to do it and when I tried – abracafriggingdabra – all my books flew back into my iPad – it was heaven!
I think, this experience had to do with the intensive, Carpe Diem I got from spending some time with Stephen Jenkinson. I see better now how knowledge of my death sweetened my life. “The preciousness of every moment” is such a cliche. But watching Jenkinson took it up a glorious notch, at least in my recent experience with Amazon Customer Service. Powerful.
Stephen Jenkinson’s ideas range farther and wider than I have time for here, and I will write more about them going forward.
The documentary, Griefwalker, is available on Netflix. I don’t think Dead Poet’s Society is, but you can probably find it at your public library for free. They can get it if they don’t have it. The Sun Magazine has an amazing interview with Stephen Jenkinson which you can get on their website http://thesunmagazine.org/issues/476/jenkinson_dying. Check out the Sun!
Originally posted 2017-01-13 22:57:56.