It has been quite some time since I wrote a post about a poem. I’m well aware of one reason for this, which is my continued studies of Japanese kanji. That is such a thoroughly poetic activity, opening up all kinds of useful space in my brain, and it’s been richly rewarding. But on a whim I tossed Alfred K. LaMotte’s little volume Savor Eternity One Moment at a Time in my bag for a quick trip to the Bay Area this past weekend. One of the poems in it must have been lying in wait, for I was completely overwhelmed by its power. I hope you find it helpful as well. It’s not a long poem but I’m just going to share a few choice couplets.
The ancestors want you to know
that you are not required to carry their pain.
You cannot pay them for the privilege of breathing,
or for awakening this solitude of beauty.
They need no libation, nor thirst for the offering cup.
They are not hungry ghosts, but merely
earthworms who luxuriate in loam,
shards of sunlight lodged in dogwood blossoms.
A mother kissed you, a father held you;
you owe them nothing for this.
They did it for themselves; so let them
be about the business of their next childhood.
If you’re like me, you may find this a bit difficult to take in. The poem as a whole offers much assistance with this but it is still not easy. Ancestors have been much on my mind lately, with the decline and passing of physical parents as well as a frequent sense of obligation, of something owed to earlier generations. As a participant in multiple traditions, particularly shamanic and Buddhist, as well as the continual negotiations I make with my Christian upbringing, this question of the ancestors weighs heavy on me. So the line “you cannot pay them for the privilege of breathing” resonates to my core. I cannot repay that debt: because it is not possible, because it is not necessary, because it no longer matters. “A mother kissed you, a father held you;/you owe them nothing for this./They did it for themselves”. Not because they are selfish or self-indulgent, but because they had their work to do. And you have your work to do.
Father your heart, Mother your body.
Hold and kiss your own new sparkling babies.
What better way to honor and acknowledge the profound gift of life we have received than to live into that gift as fully as we can?
The past is vanishing smoke, the flame is now.
Be christened with this breath: name yourself.
I’m going to let this poem resonate for a while: it is powerful medicine indeed.