Today is Ash Wednesday, the day in the liturgical year that reminds us that we are dust, and all too soon, we'll return to dust. Those of us who go to Ash Wednesday services will have a cross smudged on our foreheads, a cross of ash ideally made from burning the palm branches from the previous year's Palm Sunday. We hear some variation of these words: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
You can call yourself a creature made out of the ruins of stars (true!), but you're dust all the same.
I'm not always in an Ash Wednesday frame of mind, but this year, I've been sinking into Ash Wednesday for weeks, what with bad health news from colleagues, and just yesterday, the news that my favorite, undergraduate English professor died last week. I'll write more about her in a later post.
It's the time when I feel my creative self shifting. Once, I told myself I had plenty of time. I could write whatever I wanted. Now, I find myself asking, "If you can only write one book and have it published, what should that book be?" I'll still work on a variety of projects, but my aging affects what I'm thinking about in terms of pursuing publication. And of course, technology affects my thoughts of publication too.
Today I was looking at the texts to which I often return during parts of the liturgical year: Girl Meets God by Lauren F. Winner and Things Seen and Unseen by Nora Gallagher. Both women have gone on to write books that explore their doubts, their maturing faith, their faith falling away. I wonder if it's painful for them to see these books, these testimonies to faith communities of which they are no longer part.
I am wrestling with profound sadness this year, a sadness which is both part of the human condition (everything we love will be lost!) and unique to me (colleagues gone, teachers gone, houses and offices gone, writing projects slipped away, lonely, lost, lonely, lonely, lonely).
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).
As always, Ash Wednesday provides powerful impetus to poetry. I've been writing a series of Ash Wednesday poems, many of which I've posted on this blog. Here's one I haven't posted here, although I have given a link. It was first published in Hobble Creek Review.
Ash Wednesday in MiamiBury me in a Southern field,
free of coffin, free of clothes.
Let me meld into the mulch,
turning the red clay into rich dirt.
Do not let me rot beside this Southernmost
sea that grows more acidic
by the day. I do not want
to fertilize the asphalt and the concrete.
I do not want to wait
for rising seas to consume
my final resting place.
No, bury me in the humid
swamp of a sunny, Southern day.
Let me fertilize the corn and squash.
Remember me when you salt
that perfect tomato sandwich,
sweet with Duke’s mayonnaise
and memories of me.
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