When I was 15, Bruce Springsteen released the River, a song rich with images that played like a movie. His ability to tell a story drew me in. I longed to plunge myself in the river, to wash away regrets I did not even have.
Years later, Brother Where Art Thou created a resurgence for old spirituals about the river. I did not know when I saw it in the summer of 2000, that I soon would wade my way on a journey to deeper spiritual life as an ordered minister and healer. Even with that, ultimately I found my greatest spiritual home on the blackberry river and I truly would go down to the river to pray as I picked, finding connection, release and a quiet place to listen to God’s whispers. This is the place that fills my soul and continues to give me insights into the Divine.
I went down to the river today to check the berries. The first thing I noticed was the river bank. Previously a gradual slope, the edge has been worn away by the high, fast waters of the spring run off. The river was flood high this year, and even now runs faster than usual, requiring careful attention to foot. But it felt good to step into the flow of it. As I did I could feel myself ground, my energy wash clean.
The berries are, for the most part, not quite ripe. Happily this means I’ll be back many times in the next few weeks. I’m kind of glad of it because I’m busy all weekend and was fretting that I would miss peak picking days. But apparently not.
In a few weeks blackberries will, once again, fill my freezer and pantry. In the winter, when their flavour graces my breakfast, they will bring memories of the river that provides them with their juice. And while I don’t go to the blackberry river in winter it continues to nourish me, continues to pray for me. Indeed continues to sing in me. Thanks be to God.
Remembrance Day is tricky
There are those who fought in service of their countries
We pray for them
And there are those who as conscientious objectors did not
and stood for peace
And we pray for them
There are those who lived through and died in combat
And those who lived and died imprisoned
by their own countries
We pray for them
We wear poppies
red poppies and white poppies knowing we need to remember
But to remember what?
Heroism and loss and death and judgement and hope
and quietly just carrying on through the destruction to keep families
and communities alive
And mostly to remember peace
And to mourn our inability to keep it
And to look into our own hearts and heal our wounds
To heal our greed and our fear of difference and our sense of being right
and our belief that we know what’s best
That we learn to pause
And to breath
And to connect to the peace of Christ
To learn to be in companionable conflict with each other
Our families and communities
Because if we cannot talk about the things we disagree about
with those we love and care about
we will not know how to talk to people who look different
and speak differently and see the world through a different lens
And we will never learn that perhaps they have something to teach us
We remember that everything is created twice
The first when it is envisioned and the second when it is made real
So we pray that what we envision is God’s kingdom
That we see ourselves as agents of peace in every aspect of our lives
That we envision a love that both holds the other
And holds each other accountable,
With compassion and kindness,
as we walk this journey together
Remembrance Day is tricky because we boldly remember the ways we have failed
Then boldly lay that aside like yesterday’s wilted wreath
Honouring each piece as we take it apart
And, taking the seeds from the dying poppies, plant a garden
Plant a garden
Today we remember and we pray
We remember the past so we can join God in co-creating our future
We remember the past because our story emerges from these stories
We remember the past and remember that
We live the kingdom of God
Or we don’t
Lest we forget
~ Kimiko Karpoff, November 11, 2017
this place, a valley in a valley
paved streets below peaked roofs
below apartment towers
and a river of cars runs through it
i join the flow on the banks of Main street
watch vehicular flotsam drifting by
turn my head at an ambulance's startled call
another answers in the distance
is this the valley of the shadow of death?
your staff and robe make you the crazy one
comforted by talk of green pastures and still waters
dinner at the mission
i am my own enemy
mountains rise beyond concrete
reaching blue sky
the house of the Lord
my shelter in this place
Joy and Sorrow
and sorrow are not
opposite, sitting across
the wall with a door between
where I travel
one to the other
they are here together
companionably having tea
to sit and drink in both
the gladness and anguish
because both speak
to what is precious of life
Not many people call me on my cell phone, but Rico did. So when the phone rang while I was driving I wondered if it was him as it clicked to voicemail. It had been a week since we’d last talked. It hadn’t been a great conversation and it had ended when he hung up on me.
Rico was a man who lived with pain. Physical, emotional, mental and spiritual pain. He was the quintessential person falling through the cracks of our systems. And falling and falling and falling. Although I love Leonard Cohen’s Anthem, there does not seem to be any light getting into these cracks.
Rico carried many labels: ex-con, violent offender, addict, schizophrenic. He was aboriginal, had grown up in foster care, spent years in and out of prison. He could also be charming and endearing and exasperating. Most of all, I think he was incredibly lonely.
Labels, I guess, can be helpful. I have friends whose children have various learning challenges and getting the label can help them get support. But labels are very limiting. They have no nuance and tell you nothing about the person. They are also sticky and hard to lose.
When Rico called me, his labels had done him in again. He had checked himself into an addiction treatment centre the previous day. He had been on the edge, feeling unsafe, like people were after him. A support worker had helped him get it arranged and I had bought him the Greyhound ticket. But the staff at the centre were sending him back to the city because, they said, of his mental health diagnosis. He needed to be able to check in with his mental health team. He insisted that the doctor knew about and supported his being there and it sounded like it was true when he told me about the conversations his doctor had had with their doctor.
I suspect he was right in saying that they didn’t want to deal with someone like him, someone who had the complexity of mental health on top of addiction. Just a reality. They may have felt they did not have the capacity for that. Rico also believed it was because of his record but it was hard to tell what was real and what was a symptom of his illness and what was triangulation. He was angry. And although I don’t blame him I asked him to stop yelling at me and said that the insults he was throwing at the people at the treatment centre were not helping.
But, like everybody else, I couldn’t simply fix it. And when, in my exasperation, I said that, he hung up.
The missed call, when I checked it at home, showed as private. There was a voice mail message from a Vancouver City Police detective. Nothing against police, but it’s rarely good when they call.
He started with the “are you. . .?” and “do you know a. . .?”
And, “I understand that you were his pastor?”
I had known Rico for years, I explained. We’d met at an outreach ministry and had kept in touch even as I moved into different work. I’d connected with him a lot in the community, supported him through homelessness and hospitalization, visited him in prison and talked to him regularly since he’d been out.
“We’re calling you because you were listed as his contact,” he said. “I have some bad news and am seeking information. I’m sorry to say that Mr. G- is deceased.”
I always find it odd when people say that. So and so is deceased. I guess it’s supposed to be less harsh than saying he’s dead but it often strikes me as prevaricating. I said nothing.
“It was likely an overdose,” he continued. “Possibly a medical event. But nothing was done to him,” he assured me.
Nothing was done to him. Trying to give me some level of comfort however small. Which it was. Rico had been afraid of dying violently, of being hurt. He’d told me that. He was often the target of violence and had been beaten up several times. He was also afraid of dying alone. He was afraid of dying alone because, he believed, that unless someone was there praying for him as he passed, intervening with God, that he would not go to heaven.
I had told him that I did not believe that to be true. I told him that God was not like that, that God accompanies us and that he, Rico, was a beloved child of God. He always found my theology baffling, or so he said, and to be honest it sometimes sounded hollow even to me in the context of his life. And I feel a deep grief to think that even if he did not die violently, he died believing that he had been abandoned by God and me and the system that tossed him down that crack.
Some people might attribute Rico’s death to the current opioid crisis. I don’t. His ensnarement went much longer and deeper than that. His life was a tragedy of layers of colonization that continually tried to contain and confine him. He seemed to get caught and mauled by every stinking dysfunction in our society. We think we have systems in place to help people until every single one seems to have a little sign on it that says, “Oh, well, not for you.”
I do not separate myself from that system.
There is a labyrinth embedded into the floor of the church. It is a beautiful pattern created out of a series of switchbacks that ultimately lead to the centre. Labyrinths are ancient spiritual practices. People walk them for many reasons: as meditation; for clarity; to shake loose stuck questions.
I walked the labyrinth trying to come to terms with Rico’s death. I walked with my guitar and sang and sang until something released and tears poured down my face. Singing became sobbing but I did not stop, just kept strumming the chords, the combination of walking, bare feet on the cool floor and vibration from the guitar a deep prayer that helped me to settle.
Often you step into the labyrinth with a question and the act of walking reveals new truths and you come out with new understandings. This was not one of those times. This was a walk of mourning, of lament, a private procession for a man, a beloved child of God, indeed a friend, who bore the brunt of our collective brokenness.
I once asked God what was the point of driving Rico around and never being able to help? The response, because he is now in my heart.
Grief comes from a deep place. It wells up from the cracked foundations of our lives, seeping sometimes through the layers and the patches we have used to cover our brokenness. Our own brokenness and our collective brokenness, the cracks that we sometimes carry on behalf of the whole. Rico carried our communal cracks for us. With my grief I picked them up and carried them like an offering to the centre.
musings of someone spiritual and oddly religious
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