Point of Return: Sifting the Ashes

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I’m sitting in a coffee shop eating my noontime cottage cheese when a woman approaches me. She peers at my face, then touches her forehead. “You have something there,” she says, offering a packet of Kleenex.

I spent my pre-Knoxville life in New York and Chicago, big cities where Ash Wednesday was another unremarkable feature of the multicultural landscape. No one looked twice at people walking around with blurry black crosses on their foreheads on a late winter day. At work, the standard comment was Oh, you went. I meant to go.

Newly arrived in East Tennessee, I worked up a 30-second sermonette to explain my apparent lapse in personal grooming. I covered all the bases: penance, detachment from worldly things, Old Testament precedents. It wasn’t a hit. Mostly, people’s eyes glazed over. Now, I just shrug and smile. Lent, I say.

When I lived in New York, I sometimes went to Ash Wednesday services at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. In the long line for ashes were tourists with cameras and midtown office workers on their lunch breaks. There were chic Park Avenue ladies in designer suits and doctors in scrubs and cops in uniform. Once I even saw a fireman in his heavy black slicker and boots, helmet in hand. Mothers juggled babies and toddlers; an elderly woman approached the altar on a walker.

The hard-liners joke about A and P churchgoers who only show up for ashes and palms. There is something appealing about the anonymity of a big urban cathedral, a place where no one knows or cares how often you come, or what you do in between visits. The world was there in that vaulted, echoing place, queued up for a black smudge on their foreheads and a reminder of mortality. Standing in line, I felt a certain kinship with the people around me. Our records of attendance, our personal histories, the burdens we carried seemed irrelevant. For a few minutes on a cold March morning, we were all headed in the same direction.

Back when I was young and clueless, I disliked the words that accompany the imposition of ashes: Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return. I get it, I thought. No one here gets out alive. But that’s a long way off, and why dwell on it?

Now, though, the words have acquired a certain resonance. I know something about dust, the carefully made plans that go up in smoke, the powdery embers of failure and loss. I have chosen an urn for my father’s ashes, stood at the graves of my mother and grandmother and a host of family and beloved friends. In a world that prizes youth and denies old age and shuns death, I have learned to find comfort in an ancient ritual that invokes the beginning and the end.

By late afternoon, the cross on my forehead has faded to a gray blur. I draw a few curious looks in the office corridors, a sideways glance in the supermarket. No one else comments on my grimy face or offers me a Kleenex. I go home and make tuna casserole, the Lenten fare of my childhood, and experiment with the thought of giving up Facebook and manicures for the next 40 days.

I think about dust, how lightly it floats on the air, how easily it is brushed from a table or shelf, only to dance in a shaft of light and settle again somewhere else. I turn over the day in my mind, and reflect that there is something to be said for a prayer that mentions dust and ends with the word return.

Stephanie Piper's At This Point examines the mystery, absurdity, and persistent beauty of daily life. She has been a newspaper reporter, editor, and award-winning columnist for more than 30 years. Her Midpoint column appeared monthly in Metro Pulse from 1997 until 2014.

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