I grew up wearing a poppy every November 11th. It is one part of my Canadian heritage that I successfully imported to my new home. This year, with no access to official poppies, I crocheted a handful and asked my family if they might wear them. Initially it felt like a small gesture but as I handed a poppy to my son I was suddenly flooded with emotion.
Symbols can be tricky things, changing meaning and form over time. I noticed that at this year’s Remembrance Day ceremonies the poppies I saw on the internet were diverse. Some were large, some had many petals, some people wore multiples. The poppies were worn for an entire week instead of a day. One constant: the official narrative still emphasized the poppy as a symbol of the blood sacrificed in the ambitiously named “war to end all wars.”
While I appreciate that tradition, as a child I twisted the poppy’s meaning into something slightly different. The poppy represents my opposition to nationalism, hatred and war. My poppy includes the blood of civilians. It considers all the animals and plants sacrificed (extinct or dying) for our greed and convenience. I take a perverse pleasure in wearing it over my ‘bleeding heart’.
I remain faithful to those covert meanings. But. This year, in the moment I passed it on to my child, the poppy shapeshifted into a symbol of our shared heritage. A heritage that includes the best and worst of humanity. As a parent I am an ancestor in progress. I very much want to be worthy.
Many of us flinch at the idea of working with ancestors. I use the word ‘working’ deliberately because this practice isn’t necessarily a sentimental journey. For those who were adopted, contemplating the idea of ancestors can open old wounds. Anyone who experienced abuse or neglect isn’t likely to eagerly seek out the source of their hurt. The ancestors of many North American residents participated in the First Nations holocaust and/or the slave trade. In Europe the wounds from the Nazi holocaust are still fresh.
How could one possibly ‘honour’ such ancestors?
Buddhism may offer a starting point. Buddha said life is dukkha: a terribly bumpy ride. Every person who has ever lived has had to make difficult choices. Some chose poorly. We don’t have to honour their mistakes. We can be mindful of their suffering and the suffering they imposed on others.
It may be tempting to pretend terrible stuff never happened but the process of healing begins with acknowledgement. No good can come from the impulse to bury the bodies and forget they existed. To do so means all that suffering happened in vain.
It may be just as tempting to shovel our guilt onto our ancestors to avoid the shame of our current situation. The truth is that we are connected to and participating in a mass extinction event. Indigenous women continue to go missing. Black men are murdered by police. Fascism is awake and on the move again. We can’t blame our ancestors. The pain of the world is on us, the living.
The problems facing us are so huge we risk being overwhelmed but one considers past horrors and current issues for a purpose: to correct the course for the future. One hopes that with remembrance comes a commitment to do better. Because along with dukkha, Buddha also taught impermanence. If reality is always in flux we can at any time choose to head out in a new direction. Lately, I have been thinking of people I admire; those who made life affirming choices sometimes at great cost to themselves. Some are people I have known well. Others are people I’ve only read about. They are all equally inspiring.
Remembrance Day, the Extended Version
When I was a child we all wore a poppy only on Remembrance Day itself. I am wearing my poppy from Samhain all the way through to the winter solstice. Keeping the poppy close to my body and giving the image time to resonate may give insight/awen extra opportunities to reach my awareness.
Why use a poppy? I love connecting my personal spirituality with mainstream culture. It is also a powerful image in itself. The red petals represent a past splashed with blood. But red also represents courage, just what I need to become a worthy ancestor. The black circle at the centre could represent the pit of human despair, a reminder that the human heart is capable of terrible things. But a circle is many things. The circle of my poppy represents a well of hope. It is dark because it is deep, holding every single one of our ancestors rooting for a better future.
Do you have an unconventional way of honouring the ancestors? Contact us here if you wish to share.
mitsubachi is a writer, photographer and editor at Anima Monday. She spends a lot of time with bees and flowers.