I went to Oppenheimer Park today.
The geographical heart of the Vancouver Downtown Eastside.
I went on a pilgrimage to honour my friend Bud Osborn
just a week shy of the fifth anniversary of his death,
I was told that Bud’s ashes were spread under the cedar tree
near the totem pole in Oppenheimer Park.
I expected a magnificent cedar,
but found a tree not much more than seven feet tall.
A stunted, lonely, scrap of a tree.
Hardly more than a shrub.
A tree of little regard,
neither tended nor loved.
In his “1000 Crosses in Oppenheimer Park”
Bud wrote of sorrow, loss and bitter tears.
He wrote of “1000 dreams, 1000 hopes,
1000 yearnings for community lost to us.”
That insignificant tree, hardly worth noticing,
bears witness to that loss, those denied hopes.
There was no plaque.
No indication that this was sacred ground.
Where Bud’s ashes had been spread
there were bags of garbage, of cans and bottles.
Oppenheimer Park continues to be home to
a hundred or so homeless and addicted neighbours.
Tents surround the park,
and a community of protection and care has emerged.
I stood by that tree,
in someone’s front yard.
And Rob came over and said hello.
What was I doing?
I asked him if he had heard of Bud Osborn.
“Oh yea,” he replied, “the poet, the activist.”
I told him that Bud was my friend, my teacher,
and that his ashes were spread under this tree.
Rob immediately started clearing up the garbage
and I just stood there.
This was Rob’s front yard, not mine.
But he was going to clean up this sacred ground.
He went to work to honour the memory of Bud,
and to show kindness to this stranger on his pilgrimage.
Rob and I talked.
He’ll be 56 in June and has been an addict for 45 years.
Yep, 45 years.
An alcoholic at the age of 11.
And he bore witness to everything that Bud taught me.
Here in Oppenheimer Park, where so many have died, there is life.
Here in the desolation of addiction and poverty,
there is community.
Here at the heart of desperate homelessness
there is home and family.
Here in the most dangerous and violent neighbourhood
there is safety and security.
As I took leave of Rob, he said,
“When I saw you standing there by the tree
I knew from your calmness that you were not a threat, but a friend.”
Rob told me that there was a plaque of some sort to Bud
at VANDU (Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users).
So up I went to East Hastings looking for VANDU,
directed along the way by junkies pointing me
in the right direction.
Feeling conspicuous, I walked into VANDU and there it was,
not a plaque but a 6 by 4 foot banner to Bud.
Poet and Actavist
Someone went to a lot of work to produce that banner.
Someone put their love and heart into this memorial to Bud.
And they got it right with two words.
Poet and Actavist.
Now I’m not sure if that is a misspelling,
or there is a meaning to “Actavist” that I don’t know.
But they still got it right about Bud.
His was a poetry of action,
his words never came back empty.
So I made my way down East Hastings to a place of words,
the Strathcona Branch of the Vancouver Public Library.
And there I found another memorial to my friend.
The Bud Osborn Creation Space.
A free neighbourhood space
in honour of a man who wrote about taking back space.
A space dedicated to creativity and storytelling
in honour of such a liberating wordsmith.
My heart is filled with gratitude.
I am humbled to have known Bud as my friend.
My sorrow is touched by joy,
that Bud lives on in the memory of the Downtown Eastside.
And I remember anew Bud’s testimony to life.
“Here I am amazingly alive.”
A testimony of life out of death,
of hope out of despair.
A passion of courage against the odds,
of blessing in the face of such curse.
Beloved friend, in the memory of your life
I say thank you.
In the memory of your death
I say resurrection!