Saturday, November 29, 2014

in memory of bud osborn

listening to Bud that night, nobody could have left without having their entire being shaken to the core.
-Am Johal

Bud Osborn was and is one of the greatest influences on me, in terms of my understanding of social justice, poetry, capitalism, drug policy, dignity for all people, and hope. I found out recently that he died in Vancouver this past May, at the age of 66, from complications related to pneumonia. I would like to write a little bit about what Bud meant to me.

I was a philosophy major in college and my favorite professor, Bob Doede, was good friends with a man named Bud Osborn, who was a poet on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. Bob invited Bud to come to one of my classes, and Bob invited another one of my classes to go to a poetry/music reading that Bud did. The poetry that I heard Bud read was about heroin addiction (Bud was a heroin addict and alcoholic for many years, before he entered detox) and poverty and I hadn't heard anything like it before. It was so much more raw and so much less polished than anything I had encountered before by the name of poetry. It was explicit and overt and it wasn't tidy at all. It was uncomplicated in the sense that Ginsburg's "Howl" is uncomplicated; it was straightforward and unignorable and rather tough to take. He read a poem about his mother being raped in front of him when he was a young child--how he tried to fight off her rapist and was thrown across the room. He wrote about his father's suicide, and his own suicide attemps. He wrote about dozens of friends who had died of overdose and suicide and disease.

His presence was humble, gentle, very kind. I had not encountered poetry like his before and I hadn't met someone like him. I bought several of his books and read them over and over. I went to a fundraiser for the Downtown Eastside folks. I met a mutual friend of Bob and Bud's, named Dave Diewert, who had quit his job teaching at a graduate school in order to live and work among the downtrodden. I was only 20 and 21 and 22 and 23 and 24 in those days--my mind and heart were roving and opening and so many things were new to me. I started learning formally about privilege (I'd understood it informally for a long time, from the gender side of things) and about how systems of power crush "the least of these," to put it in Christian terms. How victims are addiction are considered worthless trash--but they aren't worthless trash--they're valuable as anyone else.

Those three men influenced me mightily. A friend of mine asked me recently to start writing about who has influenced me in my life. Well, Bob and Dave and Bud influenced me hugely. They introduced me to Christian thinkers and activists who interpret Jesus as a friend of the oppressed, and who consider following Jesus to be about be friends with and advocates for the lonely, the homeless, the distasteful. They also taught me that that isn't easy at all. All three men struggled themselves with sorrow (as anyone will who opens their heart to the suffering of others), loneliness, and despair (as anyone will who challenges systems of violence and oppression). I'm so thankful to have had those incredibly human men as models, men who modeled fidelity to love, men who modeled humility and imperfection and compassion and radical open-heartedness. (Men who didn't model flashiness or winning or worshiping the narrative of the American Dream.)

After I graduated from college, I mostly lost touch with all three men. But I thought of them often, and I tried to embody what I had learned from them. Of course I did it incredibly imperfectly, but their influence was a huge part of why I started Integration in Flagstaff (a 5-year conversation group that I hosted in my home), and why I interpreted the poverty I saw in South Africa and Zambia in the way I did. Bud, specifically, was an influence on my writing. Reading his writing challenged me to be as fiercely authentic as I could possibly be. Bud was an embodiment of Rumi's challenge to "Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment." Bud was bewildered at all the suffering within his community and he wasn't trying to be clever at all. But he was trying to be smart, and to change policy and to change the hearts of people in power.

In 2009, when I started teaching creative writing in the Kosciusko County Jail, I brought in a whole bunch of poetry to read to my classes. A lot of it didn't resonate with my students; I was just experimenting (not having taught before, and not having interacted with prisoners before) and bringing it what had resonated with me. Then one day I brought in Bud's poetry and everything changed. My students loved Bud's poetry. They cried when I read. They rocked in their seats, and as soon as I would finish a poem a student would tell me that he'd had a similar experience to Bud's. Students started sharing about their own experiences of rape, incest, suicide attempts, drug addiction, the death of so many friends, poverty, loneliness, child abuse, abandonment, betrayal, hopelessness.

It was overwhelming and I wish I had talked to Bud about that more. I would come home from teaching and weep. Once, one of my students, Tiffany, died of a drug overdose; her body was found out in the country, in a ditch along the side of a road. I came home from class and lay on my kitchen floor and screamed. I remember in those days that I was sometimes vicious towards Jon (my partner, and sometimes my teaching partner), I think because I was so angry about what I was witnessing in the jail--that human beings were caged, and that their caging was only the most recent event in a long history of violence towards them. I didn't know how to be present to people suffering that intensely without feeling wrecked myself. I wrote Bud about some of that, and he wrote me back, but I wish I had written him more. I think if I had opened up to him about everything I was experiencing, he would have said that he understood. He would have said that rage and bottomless grief are very sane responses to witnessing violence and addiction and death.

Bud donated books of his poetry to my students; the students shared the books and passed them around until the pages were ragged. Those books may still be there in the jail. I hope so.

After that, I'm very sorry to say that I lost touch with Bud. I didn't have a specific reason to be in touch with him, and I guess I never considered until now that I could have perhaps sent him encouragement from afar. That I didn't actually have to have a specific reason. That caring about him would have been reason enough. Bud changed my mind and heart so much more than he ever knew.

It's such a big deal to write nakedly about hurt. In writing what he did, he allowed dozens of people in jail in Indiana, and hundreds of people around North America, to know that they aren't alone. Knowing that you aren't alone, that somebody understands, that is such a big deal. It is life. Bud Osborn's life and his poetry and his presence was life to many people. I'm more blessed than I can say to be one of those people.

I end with links to two beautiful meditations on the life of Bud Osborn:

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