Pilgrim's Progress

by Ken Ireland

Will my heart ever warm to these foreign gods?
No matter that we shaved our heads for awhile.
No matter that we wore socks that felt more like gloves
than the fingerless mittens that mother stuffed our hands into
when the pond froze over.
There is still some mystery the heart cannot speak.

Sometimes I feel as if I've been snowed into that one room school
my grandpa talked of,
huddled around the stove, a gang of kids
jostling for attention like best grades,
playing with tongue tangled words in a Sanskrit yeshiva,
parsing phrases as cold as Tibetan snow.
I aim for the precision of the shovel
I used to dig out the family car
after the blizzard,
cutting square white blocks to toss before the plow.
I train my body to own the rhythm of
swinging forward, bending down from the hips,
throwing my arms towards the ground.
It feels like falling.

When the conversation overheats,
almost as loud as at auntie's Sunday table
before we were hushed,
I hear my own voice inflected at the end of sentences,
if I can get to the end.
I still believe the end matters.

The snow will melt soon enough,
and return again
when the Sun swings low.

This picture was taken on the Maine coast where my father spent many years. It is at least 100 years old (shorter than a kalpa, but older than me). It got me thinking, in a very personal way, about Buddhism here on 'foreign soil'; I remembered that poignant line from Puccini's Madama Butterfly when the abandoned Cio-Cio-San sings to her maid after chucking out the household altar: "The Buddhist gods are fat and lazy, the American gods and swift and sure."

to read more of my poems



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