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April 19, 2006

Who doesn’t think on occasion, “The river looks beautiful today,” as we catch a glimpse of it from our car window as we rush across it. But few of us love the river the way Karen Abse did. Karen did not call it the “Rivah;” it was “The James” to Karen; a river of force and spirit; water with a temper. She did not just admire it from the Huguenot Bridge or the Browns Island pedestrian bridge. She swam, canoed, and kayaked in it. And on January 21 of this year she died in it.

Karen put in that day to challenge the river’s high white water—it was running 8 feet above normal. But as she moved through the Hollywood Rapids she was caught in what the water dogs of the James call a strainer—trees and debris that jam in the rocks and bridge pilings, forming a trap for anything that the river pushes into its tangle. Karen was a uniquely skilled kayaker; she was certified to teach canoeing, white-water kayaking and sea kayaking. But when the torrent pulled her under the litter of the strainer she could not free herself. Her fellow kayakers tried desperately to save, but their heroic efforts were for naught.

As philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau explained, “The person who has lived the most is not the one who has lived the longest, but the one with the richest experiences.” Karen, each day of her life, lived by Rousseau’s creed. The James River is a serious river, and Karen knew that. But she so loved the river, and the danger did not keep her from it. Her life ended because she took a risk. She understood the risk and did all she could to minimize it. Sometimes, no matter how much we try to prevent harm, accidents happen.

Karen’s friends and family met for her memorial service a week later on the banks of the James, as if we wanted to reassure her river that we held no hard feelings. Her service drew us all together for the first and last time, and even people who knew Karen well were surprised by the diversity of the assembled throng. For Karen was the kind of person that science writer Malcolm Gladwell calls connectors: those who seem to have far more ties to other people than the rest of us. We all are embedded in a network of friends, family, and acquaintances, but connectors are the hubs of a more vast and far-flung web of relationships. And Karen was a unique kind of connector, for she not only linked with people in one-to-one relationships; she also was a member and leader of dozens of different groups and associations. That day in the afternoon sunshine at the river’s edge her softball and soccer teams stood together, wearing their uniforms in her honor. Members of James River Outdoor Coalition and the Coastal Canoeists came with their boats on the roofs of their cars, an honor to their lost member. Her former crewmates of the Lady Slipper, the boat that Karen captained when for many years in the James River Bateau Festival, threw flowers into the river. The artists from the craft cooperative Karen helped found, “But is it Art?,” stood together before the display of Karen’s pottery, weavings, and sculptures. Her sisters, father, and former husband and partner comforted each other, as did the cliques of fellow teachers in Chesterfield County Department of Parks and Recreation, the mountaineers she traveled with each year to climb the highest peaks in the U.S. states, and co-workers in Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. We gathered, not so much as individuals, but as entire groups to salute the contributions of a fellow member and leader.

Sometimes it takes a loss of a person for us see what we so often take for granted: our connections to our one another. The community reels at the loss of every one of its members, but the hole torn by the loss of a connector such as Karen gapes wide. We expect such people to always be with us, and may even be blind to the work they do in of creating unions and associations. Karen was the one who took charge of the situation and organized her groups. She was a community leader, but she liked to work down at the grassroots level, with small groups of Richmonders with specific needs and goals. When she was with us, we each one had to do a little less. With Karen gone, we must step in and do a little more; for ourselves, for our groups, and for our community.

So March found me with a kayak paddle in my hand and river shoes on my feet. I know that I’ll never seek the thrills Karen did in the white water of the rapids downtown, but before she died Karen had planned out a flat-water trip for early March. When the outing faltered after Karen’s accident, I accepted (somewhat slowly) the challenge and agreed to sub in for her. What was it that Rousseau said about “living the most?”

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