“When I think of my mother,” wrote great Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh in Peace is Every Step, a collection of mini-meditations and mindfulness activities we can practice to cultivate inner tranquility and stillness. “I cannot separate her image from idea of love, for love was the natural ingredient in the sweet, soft tones of her voice.”
Reading these lines made me remember my own mother and even though she has long since passed away, whenever I look into the mirror I see her in the features of my face and can’t help but think that she’s always present in me. There is a sense of invisible continuity that can’t be put into words.
There is another very deep observation that Thich Nhat Hanh makes about our connection to our parents, “If we look closely at our body, we will see that it is a gift from our parents and their parents. … As we continue to meditate on this, we see clearly that the giver, the gift, and the receiver are one. All three are present in our body.”
This subtle interrelation of the giver and the gift, a mother and a child, is what beloved poet Billy Collins explores with exquisite tenderness and warm humor in his instant classic The Lanyard included in the collection The Trouble with Poetry and Other Poems. Enjoy:
by Billy Collins
The other day as I was ricocheting slowly
off the pale blue walls of this room,
bouncing from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one more suddenly into the past—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the archaic truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hands,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.