Miles Ashes

Miles Ashes

1.
Miles’ earthly body, 
last seen in a three foot wide by seven foot long cardboard box,
next manifests in physical form
as ashes and bone chips 
which fit inside a three inch wide by seven inch high cardboard box,
all that is left of his physical form 
interred into the same wormy earth
beneath the big stone 
with the almost completely faded painted rose 
where his maternal grandmother’s
and maternal grandfather’s ashes 
and the ashes of miscellaneous bachelor uncles lay
amidst the composting leaves of the forest,
all of Miles’ ashes
except for one gray powdery tablespoon
that his mother gives me 
his maternal uncle
to take on my journey
to visit holy places 
in Southeast Asia 

2.
The ashes travel in a plastic bag 
Inside a purple pouch
Inside my shirt pocket
Next to my heart
Where sometimes they sleep with me
My own body
Reaching into the stillness of them

 

3.
They travel to Chiang Mai
Where at the holy temple of Wat Jedyod 
A pinch of Miles is placed inside a flowerpot
Outside the doorway to the Seven Peaks Library
And in the very instant Miles’ ashes are released 
Music begins
And we are guided to a band of eight musicians 
Banging on drums and bells
On chimes and cymbals
All hung from a bamboo pole 
resting on the shoulders of men 
separated from one another
by the length of a coffin.

4. 
After my own son leaves for home
I wander the Mekong river shore
Passed cabbages
Growing in small plots 
On the hillsides that bound the flowing waters 
Where I sit on a stone anchor
Wrapped with cord 
Awaiting the return of the boats it serves
And remove another pinch
Of Miles’ ashes
To cast like the solitary silent fisherman
Casts his weighted net upon the waters 
The net sinking and settling over tiny silver fish
That the fisherman brings to shore
Gasping for life
As he harvests them
One by one 
To deposit into the small woven basket at his back
While a tiny sliver of a boat
Filled with monks and peasant women
Is pushed off by a ferryman
With a long pole 
Crossing to a village hidden 
Around a bend
On the other side of the great river
And music arises from a source I cannot see
And a rooster crows
Amidst the sound of hammering
And engines
And the voices of children
Flags waving on tall bamboo poles
And there is more
And there is no more
Other than the wake of the departed boat
Lapping at the shore

5.
In Luang Prabang
The ashes attach to the bows of longboats
Arriving from the eastern shore
Loaded with sacks of vegetables
Bananas 
And flowers for sale.
And Miles’ tiny silver slivers
Come home to rest in the great river.

6.
In Vang Vieng
Where beautiful Lao women bathe
And wash their clothing
As their young children
Run naked to watch the hot air balloon
being inflated on the river’s bank
Next to herds of skinny cattle 
Being driven home
At the end of day 
Along the shoreline 
By herds of skinny shepherds
And dozens of young people 
Delight in the flowing river,
The Lao beers they drink,
And one another.
The pain of your absence,
Is not always something I can protect myself from
As I wash your ashes
From my fingers
And you come to rest
In a River named Song.

7. 
At the feet of a large stone Buddha
In a hole bored to impale wooden stakes
To which were tied the ropes
Used to move the stones
From the quarry grounds
To the carving grounds
And from the carving grounds
Across the moat
And up the ramps
Beyond the scaffolding
By elephants
Where the statue was blessed
And came to rest forever
And where centuries later
I inserted your ashes 
At the base of the Buddha
And closed my eyes to pray
And saw the bas-relief sandstone images
Carved centuries ago at Angkor
Etched inside my eyelids 
And when I open my eyes
Was greeted by a smiling orange robed monk
Who said his name was Green Hawk
Both of us laughing
For no apparent reason
Other than that we were happy
As we bowed, and hugged,
And took each other’s photographs.

8.
In the Shwedagon Pagoda
Perhaps the greatest Buddhist temple 
In all of Myanmar,
Where eight authentic hairs from the head of Siddartha still reside
In the hall of Monday people
With golden statues the size of elephants 
Each with different lips
And different eyes
With incense, flowers, and prayer beads
Which I put around my neck
I approached a carved ancient box
With inscriptions on it
secured by massive locks
which barred its opening
With scenes of teachers and wolves
The key to which no one any longer knows where it is
And into the slot thru which donations are received
I pass my fifty kyat note
with your ashes wrapped inside
Which come to rest 
At the bottom of the locked box 
in the temple
For so long as there shall be time
And the call of crows,
And babies crawling toward the gleam of gold,
And chanting.

9.
I left a part of you 
At the top of Kyaikhtiyo Mountain
At a stupa on a rock.
It is impossible to explain
How so big a rock 
Came to rest on the top of this mountain. 
I left a part of myself as well.
It was hard to climb this mountain
Covered with pagodas, medicine shops
Stalls selling parts of dead animals
watermelons
freshly pressed cane sugar
where swallows dart
In the freshest air on Earth,
And as your ashes floated off the rock
I saw a woman sleeping 
A young child sipping at her breasts
Who wanders off 
Dangerously close to the edge of the mountain
When her mother awakens and screams 
Unable to protect herself
from the pain children offer
trash all over the mountain,
plastic bags
and the smell of piss
because people live here
and people die here. 
And if someone who once loved me
Is moved to walk here after I am gone
They will find us together
And they will be grateful we brought them here
As I am grateful
To have been brought here by you.

 


10.
We take a longboat to the sacred island of Gaungse Kyun
In the River Thanlwin, 
Emptying here into the Andaman Sea, 
On the shores of the city Malymine
Where dozens of dogs who know it is their island live,
With the monks and nuns who serve them, 
and the orchids that flower there
and when the boat departs
and the dogs growl
and the red ants sting my feet
and I am alone
I plant your ashes
Inside the roots of a young coconut tree
In a grove of coconut trees
Facing the bridge that crosses 
From the unseen to the unknown.

11.
We visit the largest statue of a reclining Buddha
On the entire planet
A statue larger than an ocean liner
With nostrils big enough to breath in people
And breathe out villages
A hollow concrete and lathe offering
That is bigger than most museums
With rooms inside it
Large enough for trucks to drive through
And dioramas with dozens of statues larger than life 
Scenes of terror and hell inside the body of the Buddha
Scenes of worship and education 
Of ecstasy and death
Where at the exit an orange robed monk asks 
That I make a five hundred kyat donation
To secure one eight by eight purple ceramic tile
To help replace tiles which have fallen 
From the outside skin of the largest statue of a reclining Buddha
On the entire planet
A place where superlatives are inadequate
And that I then write my name in the holy book of donors 
And I give him the kyat
and he gives me a tile 
from the stack of tiles that have not been blessed
to place onto the stack of tiles that have been blessed
in order that they may be attached 
to the side of the reclining Buddha
and I write your name instead of mine
and you are thus inscribed
in the holy book of donors
kept deep inside the chest of the world’s largest Buddha
who reclines in  the village of Winseidawya
near his heart. 
 
12.
Some of the places we visit seem less welcoming
Almost frightening
As befits their spirits and ghosts
Caves that reach 600 meters 
Deep into mountains
That arise as if out of nowhere
Into the fertile plains
Caves filled with statues of Lord Buddha 
Carved into the walls
His nostrils filled with the smell of melting wax
From burning candles
Guiding us deeper into a series of interconnected caves
Stepping softly and carefully with elephant feet
The silence so loud we hunger for sound 
Any sound but the faint humming inside our heads
Or the unseen dog chewing 
When the guides call
Letting us know it is time to go
And we do not leave any ashes here
To be frightened by the unfamiliar darkness
Nor do we leave them
At the lake where rice cast upon the waters
Is consumed by hungry fish
Or at a stupa on the rock 
Where someone has used a white magic marker 
to write the date of your birth
on a stairway to the heavens
or the earth below
depending on your intentions.

13. 
After eleven days in Myanmar
I begin to imagine that my mother,
Dead five years now,
And my father,
Dead thirty,
Are alive
Not reborn, reincarnated, or resurrected 
But having never died
People I expect to see 
When I return 
To the other side
Of the planet
People I buy gifts for:
A man’s Burmese skirt
For my father
A saltshaker
Shaped in the form of an owl
For my mother 
It will be good to see them again.

14.
We visit the Snake Pagoda
Where a sixteen foot long python
Is carried for its daily bath
From the left side of the seated Buddha 
It lives next to 
To the six foot wide
By six feet long
By three feet tall blue tiled bath tub
Where it is lowered into the water
Which it likes,
You can tell by the way it moves 
And by the long yellow stream of urine it emits into the water
And the brown diarrheal feces
Anyone standing within twenty feet of the snake can smell
As feathers and bones of the old chicken 
The python swallowed weeks ago
Are released into the water
Which the keeper then drains from the tub
Filling it anew
With clean water
As the relieved snake sinks its head beneath the surface 
And blows bubbles through its nostrils
And the keeper then lifts the snake 
So that it is resting and drying
Stretched out along the top rim of the tub
And when I sit at the snake’s head
At the edge of the tub
The serpent crosses from     
My right shoulder
Secure behind my neck
Over my left shoulder
Rib after rib contracting and expanding
As it slides across my form
Down onto the floor
And slithers back toward the feet of the Buddha
Where it lives.
There are at least three hundred statues
Of the Buddha sitting under the protective hood of a serpent
In the Snake Pagoda.   
At one such statue, where the seated Buddha
Is affixed to a base of stone
From which the serpent arises
A deep crack has developed
And into this crack 
I place some of Miles ashes
Which I then blow deeply under the seated Buddha.
When this crack has been sealed
With mortar made of sand and cement,
As it will be,
For great care is given to these statues,
Your ashes will fuse with the mortar
And fuse with the statue
To become one with it,
At the Snake Pagoda
In Paleik,
Seven miles south of Mandalay,
By the Irawaddy River.
And you shall rest there forever.

 

15.
Inle Lake is surrounded by steep mountains
And dozens of traditional Shan and Intha villages
That cannot be reached by any means other than boat
The lake waters rising and falling 
Depending upon the season
And the mood of the goddess of rain. 
Where young boys ride water buffalo
Women and men hand wash clothing
Field workers and children wave 
Fishermen with nets in dugout canoes 
Use one leg to paddle through the water
while standing. 
Tomatoes, squashes, and corn grow on floating islands
Made of silt and muck
Created over centuries,
By people with only shovels and the will to live 
Who do not greet you by asking, “How are you?”
But rather, “Are you happy?”
In this aquatic farmland
Of small footpaths
And busy boat lanes
With bamboo dams,
Bamboo retaining walls
Bamboo stakes and ties
Bamboo houses and fences
And the bamboo’s consciousness
Of strength and flexibility
Versatility and utility
In a land of industry,
Of weaving, carving, and craft,
And diligent labor
Of a floating restaurant named “Nice.”
A floating home for monks 
Whose name translates to “Jumping Cat Monastery”
And actually has jumping cats.
You should come here
To see and visit with people who do not walk or run
Except inside their stilt houses,
Whose entire terra firma is often but twelve square feet
Of bamboo flooring
Filled with mats, bedding,
A wood cooking stove, some pots and pans
Family photographs,
Posters of soccer stars from England,
Clothes drying on hooks, 
And bells ringing.  
I wanted to leave some of you with the jumping cats,
But wasn’t sure what the monks would want
So I just eased you into the lake
To become one with the fishes
And the silt
And the floating islands
Which support the plants
That feed the people
Who grow and live 
And thrive and die here 
And who asked when you entered their waters,
“Are you happy.”

 

16.
Punducherry has a lighthouse that no longer works
A statue that looks like Mahatma Gandhi but isn’t
Carved stone columns that appear to be ancient but aren’t
A seashore with no visible boats
A beach with no people on it
And young boys who want to sell souvenirs but can’t.

Sometimes we imagine things to be alive and they aren’t.
Sometimes we think of things as dead and they are not.
The gardens at the Sri Aurubundo Ashram in Punducherry
are magnificent
The floral displays at the gravesites 
are magnificent
Incense is burning
People are kneeling in meditation and prayer
There are six six pointed stars carved into the gravesite icon
Resting atop Auribundo’s remains
No photography or speaking is allowed
And other than the calling of birds, 
The rhythmic brushing of stone 
By workmen sanding stucco 
in advance of painting it 
Is the only sound we hear
As I remove your ashes from their sacred pouch
The first time your body shall have touched 
And been reunited
With the sacred soil of Mother India,
Half your gene pool arising from this very earth,
This rich red soil that supports over one billion beating hearts.
And the huge branching Copper Pod tree -
The “Service Tree” it is called,
Leaning protectively over the graves
Its branches supported by a massive rectangular trellis 
That creates the feeling of a tent or bier
Shading both the living and the dead.
And here, at the Service Tree’s base,
I scratch and dig away at the dry red earth
With my fingernails 
And press your ashes as deeply as I can
Into the fertile soil that feeds the wise and knowing Tree
That shades the living and the dead
That witnesses and feels the prayers
Of what seems to be an endless parade of silent worshippers
That absorbs the emanation of all such visitors
As surely as a sponge absorbs water
And welcomes your contribution to its earth 
And offers you the comfort of its community.
When Aurubindo left his earthly body he was buried here
As was his wife, The Mother she is called, buried here.
I cannot imagine your being in better company.
And if it is good enough for the Aurubindos
I am trusting it shall also be good for you.

17.
I am directed quite specifically by your mother
To visit the sacred caves at Ellora
Powerful testaments 
To the wonder of human creativity and imagination, 
Where I first learn
Lord Krishna was born in a jail
And Lord Shiva played dice.
And where I see a long tailed chipmunk
Gazing up at a very tall column
Meant to be gazed upon 
As a reminder of our insignificance.
And perhaps, like Bhahubuli, 
Who stood for twelve years
In one position awaiting enlightenment
I too need a good sister and her sons to make explicit 
The obvious fact
That my ego is in the way
Of exposing the temple in my soul
Just like the stone 
Chiseled away from this mountain
To create these holy spaces
Needs first to be removed
To be used by the villagers below 
to build their homes
As its absence reveals the statues and the sacred supportive columns 
That make these temples real
That which is removed as important as that which remains
And at the very moment I deposit these remains of Miles,
Who was very insistent I do so,
Into the hands of Mahavurah
In Jain cave number 32
Near the wheel of law
Someone out of sight starts singing,
And a child starts laughing,
And I rest under the wish-granting tree
To ask for his mother’s peace of mind.

Epilogue
Less than a year passes and I have been drawn again 
To Jain cave #32 at Ellora
As magical and mystical as it is every day
Only more so
I have come here with your mother and brother
Making this sacred pilgrimage
Wrought with meaning and remembrance
As if visiting the place of your birth
And your many burials
Only we have lost one another
Your mother and brother and I
Distracted and separated
Unable to find one another as hours pass
The symbolism of our separation profound
I walk alone for miles to cave 32
I meet men harvesting a cactus they say is medicinal
And will make my home happy
And they give me an arm
I meet families who give me their email addresses
And ask I take and send them a photo
I plant myself in one place
As you have been planted in one place
Trusting they will find me
Here at temple 32
But there is only the hunting hawk
The chirping of squirrels
The man who offers me peanuts
The quiet as day draws coolly toward an end
And it becomes obvious to me that I must seek them out
That I can wait for them no longer
Although I trust they must come to you here this once
And that they too have probably chosen one spot to wait
Maybe at the entrance
And this is another difference between the living and the dead beloved
That the living believe we may seek out our fate
While we maintain the illusion the dead only wait. 
 
18.
Ajanta cave number five is unfinished
And in ways compels my attention as much
As two thousand year old tempura paintings 
Whose images and colors remain.
Is a life ever finished, I ask
As I leave you
In a meditation cell
In cave number six
Lived in by monks
Two thousand years ago
And a tigress and her cubs 
Two hundred years ago.
It is cool and quiet here
And I trust you are comfortable
And seated in peace. 
No one is yet free 
From the cycle of death and birth.
And I feel very strongly 
You are already back among us.

19.
The tracks we ride upon
Are the tracks your father knew
When he escaped his life in India
Not everyone can escape this life
On tracks so straight and narrow
Stretching in parallel lines that seem to merge
But never do
Secured by the strongest ties men can hammer
To bind each other to the earth
To serve the trains that run upon them
Passed the fields of rice and cabbage
Banana and rubber trees
Young children selling tiny eggs 
At every life station and every crossing
Where barriers are lowered and raised
In deference to the trains 
Carrying holy men returning to see their mothers
And families who have slept on straw mats 
On the platforms of the railroad stations
Where they have rested 
And pissed onto the tracks  
Tracks that take each train’s guests
From the beginning of their journey
And tribulations
To their end.

20.
Into the Ganges, in Varanasi,
In sight of the burning ghats
Accompanied by loud drumming 
The chanting of thousands
The full rising moon, 
Nearer than the moon has been to Earth in eighteen years,
I release all but the last of you.
I do not want to let you go,
Not now,
Not ever,
And especially not here 
Amidst the filth 
We obsessive compulsives know cannot be good for you. 
But where every Hindu
Hopes to end their journey
And with a sense of avuncular duty
I purchase a small floating candle on a tray
Surrounded by rose petals
That I sprinkle some of your ashes upon
And send you off with fond wishes,
Prayers one might say,
That like these waters
You too will rise into the heavens
And return to Earth
To sustain life on the planet
In the cycle of transformation
And rebirth.  

21.
In Rishikesh the journey of your ashes ends
As the sun is setting
Near the headwaters of the Ganga
Among the singing of hundreds of worshippers
And the praying of holy men
your ashes poured into the Ganga
The plastic bag they have traveled in 
stretched and ripped
Like a placenta 
to float away
This the fifteenth place and sixth country
Your ashes have been consecrated
Establishing a standard 
We trust will stand for all time
Once in America, in Thailand once, 
Twice in Laos, in Cambodia once, 
In Myanmar five times,
And five times
Once for each of the elements that comprise us all -
earth air, fire, water, and ether -
In Mother India,
At temples
In lakes and rivers
In statues and locked boxes
From a boat
At the Ganges twice
and then nothing of your remains remains,
Although your energy still radiates
As if from the first big bang

22. Epilogue
Into the now empty velvet pouch 
That carried your ashes
I place twenty eight hundred rupees
An immense amount of money in India
One hundred rupees for each year of your time on Earth 
And hand the pouch to a grandmotherly beggar 
Seated with a sleeping injured child 
On the streets of Delhi
I’ve envisioned a moment like this I realize  
as I wait for what happens next -
the beggar opening the pouch,
the look of surprise on her face -
But the woman does not open pouch
Instead just folding it into her sari
Then touching my feet
putting her hands together in prayer and gratitude 
and tucking the injured child more tightly 
Into her lap.
I do not even know 
If the woman has any idea what she has been given
And as I stand there 
Waiting for what will happen next
She pours some water into a plastic cup
And holds it to the child’s lips.
Later when I return the woman is still seated there
Only now a second child 
Is laying on the ground sleeping next to her
And when I raise my hands palm up
And shrug my shoulders in a gesture that means
What do you know
She reaches into her sari
takes out a now empty pouch
Pats her breast
And puts her hands together 
in a sign of gratitude
And when I see her one last time
There are five children sleeping around her.
And Miles has journeyed home.