Grant that these ashes may be a sign of our mortality and penitence ….
- “Ash Wednesday Liturgy,” Book of Common Prayer
I return to my pew, ashes feeling like paste on my forehead, past the smattering of people scattered throughout the church, their faces already smudged between their eyes, my mind sifting through ashy thoughts of age and mortality.
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns ….
When I was growing up in a small Maine town in the 1950s, the only church that observed Ash Wednesday was the Catholic Church. (Those snooty Episcopalians drove to a more affluent community.) Which confirmed for my family and many others in town that Catholics were not like (meaning not a good as) us Congregationalists and Baptists. My great-grandfather told his daughter he’d rather see her dead than marry the Catholic man she loved, and when she did marry the man, her father never spoke to her again. On Ash Wednesday, we kids looked out of the corner of our eyes at the Catholic kids with the smudges on their foreheads as if they’d somehow become lepers with signs proclaiming them “Unclean.”
There was a lot of “Us and Them” in those days. In the newspapers and on TV, I read about Red-blooded Americans versus Dirty Commies; on Saturday afternoons I saw westerns with the White Hats against the Black Hats and science-fiction flicks with titles like Them; and on Friday night at the gym, there were our Good Guys versus the neighboring towns’ Bad Guys.
Thus, I started climbing what Courage to Change, an Al-Anon daily reader, calls “The Ladder of Judgment,” where everyone is somehow either below me or above me— economically, physically, intellectually, spiritually—with God far, far away at the top. Comparing myself to others—judging them, judging myself—has become a life-long addiction, isolating me from people, from God, even at times, from myself.
A bucket of ash
into the air.
—David Budbill, “Smoke and Ash”
Still, I have a nostalgia for ashes. I don’t think I ever light our charcoal grill without remembering that one of my first jobs around the house when I was growing up was to take the trash to the back yard and burn it in an old oil drum set on top of cement blocks. After pulling the newspapers apart (because if I didn’t, they didn’t burn completely and my father had a fit), I lit the trash with a kitchen match. Then I’d usually stand for a while watching the smoke billow out of the oil drum. In winter, it was a lousy job, but most of the time, I liked being outside by the fire. I still do. There’s something primordially comforting about a fire.
Every few weeks, my father would shovel the ashes into a large pail and either take them to the town dump, or save them for winter, when he’d spread them on the icy driveway. I also remember Dad, who moon-lighted as sexton at our church, in his topcoat and fedora methodically dipping his coal shovel into a bucket of ashes from the furnace on Sunday mornings and spreading the cinders across the icy sidewalk so that no one would fall going into the service.
… I marle what pleasure or felicity they have in taking their roguish tobacco. It is good for nothing but to choke a man, and fill him full of smoke and embers.
—Ben Jonson, Every Man in His Humour
I grew up surrounded by ashtrays. I recall square ashtrays and round ashtrays, glass ashtrays, wooden ashtrays, metal ashtrays. I remember a bumpy white ashtray in the dining room, and a small clear glass ashtray on the toilet tank in our bathroom and a matching one beside the bathtub. In the living room stood a metal stand holding a large glass brown ashtray beside Dad’s chair, where, on Friday nights, he sat and drank Blue Ribbon and ate Spanish peanuts and smoked his Camels, watching The Gillette Friday Night Fights on our black and white Philco. One memory I have of my mother is of her standing in the kitchen, ironing, with a cup of black coffee and a cigarette smoldering in an ashtray, singing along with Bing Crosby’s voice on our old record player: “Where the blue of the night meets the gold of the day …”
My senior year in high school, the day after my last varsity basketball game, I filched a pack of Dad’s Camels from the carton he always had in his bedroom closet. I spent one afternoon learning to inhale and the next forty years trying to quit, something I remember every time I pant and gasp and puff walking up a hill.
Through [cremation] … the body is reduced to its basic elements, which are referred to as the “cremated body” or “cremated remains.”… Depending upon the size of the body, there are normally three to nine pounds of fragments resulting.
The purpose of Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, is to remind us of our mortality—Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. At my age, coming off heart surgery, watching friends die, I don’t need much reminding.
This year, I find myself wondering what will remain of me after my death. I don’t mean how many pounds of “cremains,” but what will I leave behind for others? A few published stories, a novel, hopefully another book or two. Far too many photograph albums. But I think it was Maya Angelou (it was; I just Googled it) who said, “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” And in this season of penitence, I realize that it’s not so much what I’ve done wrong in my life that I regret, it’s what I haven’t done to make people feel better that gnaws at me.
[Ashes form because]…almost everything in nature is what chemists call “heterogeneous”—that is, its composition is not uniform. For this reason, not every part is “pure” substance and will not burn.
But I’m realizing in my “golden years” that to be human is to be, as us Protestant kids used to see the Catholic kids, “unclean,” in the sense of being impure, of being “what chemists call ‘heterogeneous.’” Looking back over the pilgrimage of my life, I see that it has been a mix of good and bad, joy and sorrow, celebration and penitence, things done and things left undone. Moments such as watching smoke waft into the sky that still comfort me; moments such as inhaling smoke that have scarred me for life.
And maybe what I want to leave behind for my grandchildren from what time I have left before I become three to nine pounds of ashes, is an example of living as if there is no Us and Them, only Us.