Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Season of Ash and Somber Penitence

Here's a picture of the painting that I made on Monday. I had Ash Wednesday on the brain (for those of you who didn't grow up with this liturgical tradition, Ash Wednesday is the day when we have our forehead smudged with ash, which symbolizes how quickly we return to the dust from which we are made). I painted a canvas board with gray and black paint, and then used real ashes from the fireplace. I like how the black wispy pieces look like birds or black butterflies. For more on this painting, and how it ties in symbolically to the theology of Ash Wednesday, go to this blog posting on my theology blog.

Looking back over my writing life, I'm surprised at how often I see the themes of ash and penitence in my writing. As a younger person, I hated Ash Wednesday and all its morbid themes. As an older person, I keep returning to that well--or should I say ash pit?

The haunting words of Ash Wednesday--"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return"--often provide powerful motivation to get that writing done (or in the words of Andrew Marvell, "But at my back I always hear / Time's winged chariot hurrying near"). In his book The Lie That Tells a Truth, John Dufresne says, "But death is the central truth of our existence--the sadness at our core. Everything we love will vanish. We can't hold on to anything. It is this tragedy that accounts as well for the beauty and nobility of our lives because in the face of this knowledge, we go right on loving, trying to hold on to what we cherish, defying death with hubris and with faith" (page 61).

On a related note, Ash Wednesday also reminds me of unfinished projects. Once, years ago, I wanted to learn to write using rhythm and meter. My good friend and poet Catherine Tufariello recommended that I use poems already in existence as a model while I tried to write similar sounding lines. Those poets had already worked out the rhythm and meter, so I could take this shortcut. This process worked more smoothly with some poems than with others. Suffice it to say, I will never be the poet who automatically writes in iambic pentameter, without having to count on my fingers. But at least I now understand rhythm and meter.

I've always loved John Keats, and like many literary critics, I consider "To Autumn" one of the best poems in the English language. I started with his first line: "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness." I came up with "Season of ash and somber penitence," but never got any further.

So for those of you who want an Ash Wednesday writing prompt, I give you that line. See what you can do. May you be more successful than I have been in the past nine years (nine years--yikes!) since I came up with it.

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