THE PILGRIM

THE PILGRIM

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And he keeps right on a’changin’, for the better or the worse
Searchin’ for a shrine he’s never found
Never knowin’ if believin’, is a blessin’ or a curse
Or if the goin’ up was worth, the comin’ down

He’s a poet, an’ he’s a picker, he’s a prophet, an’ he’s a pusher
He’s a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he’s stoned
He’s a walkin’ contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction
Takin’ ev’ry wrong direction on his lonely way back home

But if this world keeps right on turnin’, for the better or the worse
And all he ever gets is older and around
From the rockin’ of the cradle, to the rollin’ of the hearse
The goin’ up was worth, the comin’ down.

Kris Kristofferson

My friend John Carpenter – known by his family and friends as Fabs for reasons that are obvious to us all – is one of those people that you don’t easily forget. He’s been many things to many people, as Kris Kristofferson’s song describes. A poet: how often, at a late night party, I have heard him launch into ‘The Shooting of Dan McGrew’ or another of Robert Service’s long people-poems. A picker: his guitar repertoire was reflected in his renditions of songs like, ‘Put Another Log on the Fire.’ A prophet, in the sense that he was ahead of his time in his thinking about how to live the good life: ‘Just be kind…’ he would say. That was Fabs, that was our John.

But ultimately he was a pilgrim. Perhaps most of all he was this, always ‘Searchin’ for a shrine he’s never found.’ I think the next line of the song reflects something that many of his generation who have walked away from formal religion have wondered: ‘Never knowin’ if believin’, is a blessin’ or a curse..’ But John was always clear about the conclusion: ‘the goin’ up was worth the comin’ down..’ That was Fabs, that was our John.

I could add more, I suppose, though perhaps Mary Oliver’s hopes for herself when death comes, says it all:

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

That was Fabs, that was our john.

And yes, death came for John last week, after a long interaction with pancreatic cancer, which is a more accurate description than ‘struggle’. For he died the way he lived, savoring every moment, even as he let go if it.

I had the privilege of helping his family with his Memorial Service and was trying to find the right balance. For, not only did the memorial have to reflect the many aspects of his life, some which, as the song describes, were almost contradictory, it also had to hold another tension by being both a celebration and a grieving: a celebration of his life and a grieving of our loss.

As I thought about this, it became clear that true celebration has to include loss. I’m reminded of the words of an Irish revolutionary-poet, Padraig Pearse, who wrote, ‘the beauty of this world has made me sad, this beauty that will pass..’ In his case, Pearse was forced to hold the tension I’m talking about, for he wrote these words on the night before he was executed for his part in the ‘Easter Rising’ – the name given to the 1916 uprising in Ireland against the British. But, in a more general sense, this tension is present in every moment of beauty and every celebration of life, created by the transitory nature of the moment itself that is passing even as we experience it.

The obvious temptation is to hold – or rather to try to hold – on to the experience: the flower that is already wilting, the music that is already fading, the child who is already growing and changing, the relationship that has to evolve. Maybe this is the essential human challenge. Our gift of self-reflective awareness appears to set us up for disappointment, and death would appear to be the ultimate one. But John seemed to have figured that one out too. ‘Don’t be sad,’ he told his devastated family when the diagnosis became clear, ‘I’m not: I’ve had a wonderful life.’

He seemed to have learned the fundamental lesson about the process: Enjoy and let go. Be present now. And now. And now…. Live and let die! I never really got the wisdom of the title of that Bond movie till now. Live by letting go of – letting die – each moment, each form, each stage, in order to become who you ultimately are.

But how do you get to that place? Clearly life does it for us in the end. But, in the meantime, it would probably bring a lot of relief to be able to do it as we go, so to speak. For that we need a little inspiration: someone who has done it and can show us the way: a precious friend, as Pete Seeger sings:

Just when I thought
All was lost, you changed my mind.
You gave me hope,
You showed that we could learn to share in time.
I’ll keep pluggin’ on,
Your face will shine through all our tears.
And when we sing another little victory song,
Precious friend, you will be there,.

I think the figures – the icons – that the religious traditions offer us are meant to provide this inspiration. But, they always seem so distant; and so different from us. John inspires us because he was just like us: a poet and a picker, a prophet and a pusher, a pilgrim and a preacher. Most of all, as the song concludes:

He’s a walkin’ contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction
Takin’ ev’ry wrong direction on his lonely way back home..

That’s us. You and me. And John. Maybe, though, he has found his way back home. I sense that he has…

John faithfully read this Blog for years. I dedicate this one to him.

Blessings on you dear friend.

And thanks

Danny

 

 

 

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