By Louis Bockner
In a world obsessed with living life to the fullest, death becomes something to be avoided. It becomes taboo to speak of it, as if recognizing its inevitability will somehow fast-track our meeting with it.
But for some, the inclusion and awareness of death in their everyday lives is an aid for injecting meaning into existence.
It is this idea that inspired the Kalein Centre, a Nelson-based hospice society, to put on the inaugural Liminal Learning Lab — a bi-annual event that will bring together artists, thinkers, medical professionals and the public to discuss what death can teach us about life.
The lab, taking place at various venues around Nelson from Sept. 14 to 17, will be a mix of both public and invitation-only events. Mike Stolte, development director for the Kalein Centre, says it’s more than a conference or a think tank-style event.
“It’s all about exploring, expressing and experiencing. We want to have good conversations but we also want to be evocative so people experience things through different means. People will be singing, people will be dancing, people will be creating art based upon their experiences with death, dying, grief and loss.”
Following the loss of his partner to cancer several years ago Stolte, a former economist, took a year off work to grieve and reassess the path his life was taking.
“I didn’t feel ready to go back to doing the stuff I’d done,” he says. “I felt I was moving into a new chapter and wanted to do more heart work instead of head work so when this opportunity with Kalein came along it gave me a chance to do stuff that’s creative and meaningful.”
The word liminal is defined as the space in between. “Often it’s the space in between living and dying,” says Stolte, “but it’s also the space where we don’t know anything, and it can be rich and fertile soil.”
The two questions the lab is focusing on are: how do we become a more compassionate community around those near the end of life? And how do we use death, dying, grief and loss as a means by which we can live more fully and authentically?
Both these questions are inspiring the public event being held at the Civic Theatre on Sunday, Sept. 17 at 4 p.m. This free talk will feature two international heavyweights in the fields of hospice and aging.
Frank Ostaseski is the co-founder of the Zen Hospice Project, the first Buddhist hospice centre in North America; founder of the Metta Institute, an education centre dedicated to fostering mindful and compassionate end-of-life care; and the author of The Five Invitations. He has lectured at the Mayo Clinic and the Harvard Medical Clinic and has garnered so much acclaim in his field that the second presenter, Dr. Bill Thomas, likened having the opportunity to working with him with being asked to play one-on-one with Michael Jordan.
Thomas, a geriatrician and no slouch himself in the hospice world, will be skyping in from New York and is sure to bring a theatrical twist to his presentation. A strong advocate against society’s rampant fear of aging, he is currently touring the world with a 12-person troupe, including musicians and psychotherapists, which he describes as a “rolling, pro-aging carnival.”
Speaking with the Star from his home in New York his passion and humour is tangible even when addressing difficult topics like death and dying.
“Wrinkles have no meaning. They cause no pain. They cause no disability. They could be defined as a good thing, a bad thing or a nothing thing but our culture defines them as a bad thing. Expand that concept and it relates to a lot of aging.”
He feels there is a broad media narrative that says everything about aging is bad. “We show up in communities and say ‘It’s complicated.’”
He says he and Ostaseski will cover the tenuous terrain between aging and dying and do it with life and laughter.
“Some people might read your article and go, ‘I don’t know man, it seems like a sad event,’ but I think people are going to come out of this event feeling great because knowledge is power.”
The event will also be live-streamed by Valhalla Visuals and the link can be found on the Kalein Centre’s website.
Aside from the evening at the Civic there is also a free night of storytelling open to the public at the Nelson Public Library on Thursday, Sept. 14, at 6:30 p.m. The evening will feature local residents David Scanlan and Corky Evans, as well as Spokane-based author Sarah Conover.
Stolte, who is facilitating the library event and much of the weekend, hopes to continue this exploration of death and dying with the public in the coming years by hosting more public events both inside and outside of the Liminal Learning Labs.
“Over time I want to make sure death, dying, grief and loss become normalized. We don’t want death to be a four letter word,” he says, smiling.