I’m driving the long way home.
Meandering along a backroad meadow
where I’ve stalled to breathe
and watch the horses play.
Let their blood and flesh, grazing
knee-deep in fireworks of wildflowers,
Why do I say “play”?
Horses I’ve known up close
shudder and twitch with nervous alert.
fenced to boredom, plagued
with flies, thistles, and thirst.
And yet they do play.
They step toward me
shyly, as if to welcome me.
As if to ask what news I might bring.
And I answer by stroking their necks.
Resting a hand in the softness
just above the nostrils.
Where they inhale my gratitude.
And graciously stand with me.
As if to confirm the world’s possibilities.
Foremost of which, despite our separate hardships,
is the goodness of this day.
Poet’s Notes: Crazy Horse, Lakota statesman, is credited with having coined the phrase, “It is a good day to die,”(Le anpetu kin mat'e kin was'te ktelo.) -- a much-misunderstood statement. The translation, as translations so often go, may be twisted. I once had the pleasure of accompanying Lois Red Elk, Lakota elder and poet, on a long drive across Montana, during which Lois educated me on many topics, including the notion of a “good day to die.”
How can there be a good day to die? Sounds like a Kamikaze’s war cry, like suicide. Too many people hear only the “die” part of these words, Lois told me. More attention should be paid to the “good day” part, wherein resides important Lakota wisdom. A good day to die is the moment I am truly alive, when I walk with attention to the miracle of my own experience, when I feel deep gratitude for the wondrous and mysterious gift of life in the first place, when I walk knowing that I came from the stars and that I am made of the same stuff as the faraway lights in the night sky. Then, if I die, I go knowing what it is to be truly alive.
I hope, in saying what I’ve just said, I’m not twisting things. “Poetry,” said Robert Frost, “is what’s lost in translation.” When I consider what it means to be truly alive, I can feel the poetry of “a good day to die.”
I can glimpse, too, poetry in the Navajo expression, “I walk in beauty.” It’s a phrase repeated in the Navajo “Blessing Way” chant, a sacred ceremony. This I learned while teaching on the Navajo Reservation. (Do you hear that? . . . I “learned” while “teaching?” Oh, please let us educate one another!)
And here’s another translation of pretty much the same thinking, this one from the German tongue. Read Robert Bly’s translation of Goethe’s poem “The Holy Longing” http://www.stevenkharper.com/theholylonging.html. I’ve memorized it and I still get the shivers every time I’m called to stand up and recite this strange and powerful poem. I’m enraptured by the title alone. Don’t we all have longings? And what’s the most important, the holiest, longing of all? . . . To know what it is to be truly alive. Goethe says, “I praise what is truly alive, / what longs to be burned to death.” That’s the Germanic version of a “good day to die.”
Gratitude for life is not an easy lesson to learn. I know I’ve been ignorant and blind for most of my days. Gratitude is a kind of waking from ignorance. Pinch me, dear friend, if you see I’ve dozed off again. Goethe’s poem ends here: “And so long as you haven’t experienced this: to die and so to grow, / you are only a troubled guest on the dark earth.”
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