To my strange chagrin, it wasn't until I dropped in to see my poet friend today and found his forehead crossed in ash that I remembered today was Ash Wednesday. I have been thinking about Ash Wednesday this week, but my own struggling and sputtering, and then my own gathering with others in various cheeriness, blocked it once the day actually got started.
One might say that I have a difficult relationship with religion. I grew up Catholic, with a Catholic mother and a father imbued with Christian beliefs and non-ritual Christian practice (which is to say: he is the person from whom I learned to treat other people and the world with dignity and respect--in my daily life, not just in my words). I went through the sacraments one by one until I hit confirmation, at which point I broke off from the church's structures with no small degree of indignation. I resumed church-going for a couple of years in college. And then I trailed off again in graduate school, on principle again this time.
I am intensely skeptical of superficial performances of piety, though I have deep respect for genuine social/public performances of piety. Because I don't believe I can always tell the difference between these, I try to give people a wide berth with regards to their faith or lack thereof--not as a gesture of "tolerance," a word that gets too much play in our culture, but as a recognition that if I believe that I can't apprehend the right way, then I also can't believe that others' ways are necessarily wrong. I draw the line at practices that hurt and deform others. I am still shocked when people tell me they're atheists. But my own beliefs center around a series of questions that I keep asking, because I'm not sure that I'll ever be able to rest in answers without feeling overly prideful. That is: I keep my eyes open. I try to keep asking questions with humility. I honestly don't know how well I do. Since finishing graduate school and moving into zones of greater, deeper solitude--it's funny to me how that happened right after graduate school: that year in Rochester really changed the way I relate to people on a daily basis--I have spent an increasing amount of time running a conversation with whatever higher power is out there. Lately, I've been performing a litany of "why?"s. My other refrain right now is "I don't understand." And my third might be "Please." I've entered a particularly inchoate part of this running conversation, you see.
Seeing my friend's forehead this afternoon made me remember what moved me most at the penultimate Ash Wednesday mass I attended, back in 1995. That semester, I was studying medieval literature in an independent study with a professor whom I got to know quite well. He had a daughter who was, at that time, ten. When I stepped up to be told, "Remember thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return," somehow his daughter was right beside me; there were two lines taking turns being marked by our celebrant. The thought of myself as dust returning to dust didn't haunt me; the thought of this ten-year-old girl, and her vibrant, brilliant father, as mortal sure did.
It's possible that remembering my dusty origin and telos--having been reminded viscerally by ash, though no thumb has traced my own forehead with this mortal sign in nine years--is in fact coming as one of the answers to my litany of questions and pleadings this week. When I'm offered a sign, as you may know by now, I respond in kind. I am officially in a season of change, of cycle and transition. Get on with it, comes the voice that sometimes talks back when I talk. You don't have all day. The one sure thing is that you're going back to the ground, and you don't know when, not at all, just not at all. So get on with it. Live your time.
Today, for the latest in several days' running, the trees trace a new dimension with their reflections in the snow puddles on the road. Today the puddles rippled in the breeze; at 2 p.m., the scene was monochrome. (This particular picture is from some days ago.)
Tonight, for the second night running, we have snow fog ("light freezing fog," the weather report calls it; last night, it became ribbons and sheets of black ice all over the walks and the roads between the officehouse and home, and I was lucky to have my department's lovely custodian here to make sure that I didn't go down the curvy blacktopped hill, the way of broken ankles or worse). The campus starts to blur the way the world blurs when I take off my glasses, or the way it blurred when I was eight and took off the first glasses I had, way back before I was nearly functionless without glasses. This kind of fog, with its cold, cold seep, makes me think of immateriality, of disappearance, of how, if I had my own personal fog, or if we lived in fog all the time, I would follow my loved ones at near distance, watching them, trying to watch over them, trying to imagine their thoughts. In the dissolution of foggy darkness, how invisibly, how unabashedly could I love.
How little would turn out to have changed at all.