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.
You say you're unfamiliar with Ash Wednesday? Are you one of the bajillion people who celebrated Mardi Gras yesterday or maybe you went further and had yourself a season of Carnivale? You have participated in the liturgical year without perhaps even realizing it. Those holidays arose as a response to the liturgical season of Lent, which begins with Ash Wednesday. In much earlier church times, Lent was a time of discipline, of giving up, of penitence. Many Christians, if they were wealthy enough to afford the items in the first place, gave up sugar and meat and fat and alcohol. So, as the season of Lent approached, they had to get all those items out of the house--thus, a festive party opportunity!
Yesterday, at the gym of all places, I spoke to a friend about our changing attitudes towards Ash Wednesday, a high holy day which we both hated when we were children. Now, we see how relevant it is. I mentioned the Hindu priest, who smeared ashes on his head every morning to remind himself of his mortality, and she said that she thought daily application of ash was a bit extreme. I thought that having this kind of reminder more than just once a year could be a good thing.
I say that we were at the gym, and you may have pictured a place of beautiful bodies. But our gym is part of a hospital where the bulk of the work that they do is cardiac rehab. We work out and are surrounded by examples of all the ways our flesh can fail us. All the ways our flesh will fail us.
We are ash, after all, and to ash we will return.
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).
Many creativity theorists would tell us that the knowledge of our impending losses is what drives us to our desks, our easels, our gardens, our clay. Perhaps it's the knowledge of the losses we've already suffered that drives us to create, whether to preserve our memories or to create something happier.
Speaking of creating, I've decided to ramp up my creativity for Lent. I will write a poem a day, and if a full-blown poem can't happen on a day, I'll write a gratitude haiku. I'll work on my memoir 3-4 days a week while continuing to blog. And I'll submit something each week for this site, which focuses on a different phrase from the cross each week and asks for art in response to that phrase.