Miles Ashes

Miles Ashes



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



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





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.



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



In Luang Prabang

The ashes attach to the bows of longboats

Arriving from the eastern shore

Loaded with sacks of vegetables


And flowers for sale.

And Miles’ tiny silver slivers

Come home to rest in the great river.



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.



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.



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.



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,


freshly pressed cane sugar,

where swallows dart

in the freshest air on Earth,

and as your ashes float off the rock

I notice a woman sleeping

With a young child sipping at her breasts

Who wanders off

Dangerously close to the mountain’s edge

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 all together

And they will be grateful we brought them here

As I am grateful

To have been brought here by you.






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.



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 inthe village of Winseidawya

near his heart.



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.



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.



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.





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.”





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 Aurobindo 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 Aurobindo’s remains

No photography or speaking is allowed

And other than the call 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 Aurobindo 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 surely if it is good enough for the inspired Aurubindos

I am trusting it shall also be good for you.



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 may 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.



Ajanta cave number five is unfinished

And in ways its emptiness

compels my attention as much

As the two thousand year old tempura paintings

Whose images and colors remain.

Is a life ever truly ended, I ask

As I leave parts of 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 yet free

From the cycle of death and birth.

And I feel very strongly

You are already back among us.



The tracks we ride upon

Are the tracks your father knew

When he escaped his life in India

The tracks your father knew

When he escaped his life in America

And made his life in America.

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.



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. 



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, ether, fire, air, and water -

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


22. Epilogue 1

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 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.


23. Epilogue 2

Less than a year passes when I am 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 cactus they say is medicinal

That will make my home happy

As they give me an arm and a hand

I meet families who give me their email addresses

And ask I take and send them family photos

I plant myself in one place

As you and the cactus have been planted in one place

Trusting your mother 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 will not be found

That I must seek them out

That I can wait for them no longer.

I trusted they must come to you here this once

And they did not.

Magical thinking no doubt

They have probably chosen to wait for me

At the entrance

Thus revealing another difference between the living and the dead,

That the living believe

only they may seek their fate

And maintain the illusion, that the dead only wait.