The Thing About Your Ancestors

Alma Ortman
3 min readFeb 29, 2024
Photo by Alma Ortman | Varanasi, India

It’s been a whole year since I’ve written a poem:
12 hollow months, a slow emptying after the storm
of the year before that (the year of many poems).
Oh, how heavy things became… those doors that opened and just as
The body of my heart taking the first blow, and then my muscles
deciding to get stronger in the shadows of dry disappointment,
bones and tendons and blood vessels pleading with kettlebells and protein
to counteract the flat patterns, the foreign insomnia, the new way a day
could suddenly feel too impossible to survive alone through —
A year of surviving the time it takes to allow expectations to burn
and make space for my doors to open.

And now, I sit in the ashy blessings of long painted fingernails
writing this poem, body rich in vegetables and herbs,
good memories of spices on my tongue
while a sleeping dog’s paw rests on me so tender, paws that sometimes
will cradle my face as if they were hands (what a blessing);
how lucky to be with a creature that inspires whatever God might be in me
just by staring at her honestly, a dog that missed me for the six weeks
I was in India, again (what a blessing!),
again thinking closely about you, sister, and our ancestors, too,
and my teacher, my friend, and all the other special people
that special people have lost: little candles in the river,
surrounded by green light.

Two days ago, on the anniversary of your death
I got my hair cut and thought about the last time I saw your hands and hair
and fingernails — I really wasn’t prepared for that —
and as the woman washed my hair with her hands I went somewhere
sacred with you and remembered how a few weeks ago,
on the other side of this world, a Hindu priest told me not to cry
when I recited your name in ceremony
and that only made me want to cry more and explain to him how
I cry for many things and I don’t always know why,
but I’m grateful at how mad he was
because it was too important to him that I understand:
She doesn’t want you so sad.
(Can you see how your sorrow is getting in the way?)
Your ancestors want to see you happy.

And then I remembered the stories about both of my grandmothers
who used to sit outside, continents apart, in a backyard and a porch
and cry all alone when they were alive,
and how deeply that sorrow is not mine
and how urgently they do not want it to be.

And then, of course, I asked for a sign and then, will you believe it,
a sunlit butterfly flew through the doorway
landing on the wall for just long enough to remind me
how much you embodied delight despite such a hard life,
and that joy is how I promised to honor you long ago
and it’s easy to do because I have this gift too —
so large a joy that I hold and grow inside like a ritual that radiates.
And anyway, my life is not so hard, even when it is!

Before coming home, I ran off a snowy cliff
like a kid wanting to impress a god,
paragliding with the Himalayas,
remembering your joy for snow and peaks,
and realizing the hardest part was jumping off the mountain —
once I was soaring, even after slipping, there was no fall;
we are firmly held by air.

So today may be the truest day that I can make this prayer:
that I may devote myself to godliness without needing assurance
or expectations met in return: to breathe joy for its own sincere sake;
to delight in this new year’s new trust that I am held
even in the slip, my strong muscles wrapped in devotion,
love cradling my face like a sweet dog would, pretending to be human.
© 2024 Alma Ortman. All Rights Reserved



Alma Ortman

Mindful poet & lifelong learner. Musings on belonging, authentic connection, joy, spirit, body, nature, inner work, vulnerability, self-love, fierce compassion