The Dust of Us
I’m never ready for Ash Wednesday. I always go to the early service, disheveled and running late, to receive two strokes of ash the priest means to make in the shape of the cross, a smudge on the forehead. I’m never ready for the cross, but I can’t wait for the ashes.
I love walking around with a sign of dying on my face. It’s not morbid to me. It’s a thrilling dissonance to go about your business all day marked with mortality: We’re all a bunch of cells rising and falling—at the traffic light, in line to get coffee, talking to fill awkward silence—until we’re not anymore.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, the stuff of us that endures when we’re finished with the difficult miracle of living.
Last Ash Wednesday night, walking to my car parked downtown, I saw a face covered with a smudge. It looked like soot. Like someone had climbed out of the mines.
Maybe it was the shadows of the lampposts in the dark. Maybe it was the way I’m primed to see shapes of mystery on Ash Wednesday. As if specks of death could stir and rise like embers turning to ash. And settle, resurrected on a face.
When I got closer, I realized, I recognized that face. A woman I’d talked to a few times on the street. I first saw her a couple of years ago at a crosswalk, head hanging with the strain of multiple bag straps on her shoulders, a tattoo on the side of her neck, resting her weight on a cane. I asked her to let me help her carry her stuff. She thanked me and gave me two of her bags. I asked if she had far to go, hoping not. “Just to that bench,” she said, pointing her cane toward the New Haven Green.
When the light turned, she walked faster than I thought she could. When we got to the bench, she sat, and I stood. “Would you like a gift card to Dunkin’ Donuts?” I asked. “How about a bus pass?” (I try to have a few gift cards and bus tickets on me for encounters like this, armor to defend against my privileged guilt, bandaids to assuage what I cannot face: people who don’t have enough to eat, who don’t have a safe place they can stay. Something to give people I perceive to be in need, so I can get on with my day.)
“I love Dunkin’!” she said. “And bus passes are like gold. If you’re homeless, you can ride the bus all day and read your book.” I wondered what kinds of books she likes to read, but I was in a hurry.
“Well, I hope you can stay warm.” A ridiculous thing to say to a homeless person in February. I couldn’t end the conversation with such a lame version of “take care.” So I introduced myself: “I’m Ashley, by the way.”
“I’m D.,” she told me. “I’ll wait here for my protector. He’s playing checkers with the guys at the library. When he comes back, we’ll go get a cup of coffee.”
When I saw D. last Ash Wednesday night, I was relieved when I thought it was the smudge of a cross on her face. It meant she was well enough to go to a service, to sit still and quiet in a church. It meant a priest had touched her forehead. It meant maybe she was ok. It meant the trace of ashes still on my skin from the morning was a way of solidarity with her, as if the disparities between us had collapsed into the dust-to-dust of us. As if God ruptures injustice with every cross.
But it didn’t happen that night. When D. got closer, I realized: What I thought were ashes was a bruise all over her face.
She didn’t seem to recognize me, and I was relieved. I scurried past the bus shelter, where people heaped with blankets were sleeping. I walked by D. as if we were strangers, past the harm on her face to my car. I was afraid of the bruise that marred her. I’m afraid of the cross when it’s a wound.
There was a well-kempt family walking to their car, too. A dapper dad holding the hand of a little girl with blond pigtails in ribbons, a mom with a wool coat and a brooch on the cowl neck of her sweater. All with tidy signs of the cross centered between their hairlines and their eyebrows.
They must have been coming from the evening Ash Wednesday service at the church on the corner. They would have just heard the Isaiah verses I’d heard that morning: Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice? … Is it not to share your bread with the hungry? The family didn’t seem to notice D. Not for lack of caring, I suspect. It’s as if they were immune to what was happening between the church and their car. I’m ashamed to admit I wish I were immune, too. I wish I weren’t so aware that I turned away from D.’s pain. We’re all indicted. We all fail to loose the bonds of injustice. But we’ve got to try. Isaiah helps me stop wallowing in guilt long enough to imagine what we could be: You shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
I want to repair the breach, but I’m afraid I don’t have it in me. In Ashes to Easter, Robert F. Morneau describes compassion fatigue as a spiritual malady: “Overwhelmed by the number of suffering people, confused on how to change systems that recycle poverty and violence, distraught by our limited energy and resources, we are tempted to turn away.” This is the temptation I need to resist: Letting fatigue sap my compassion, letting the limits of my energy constrain my hope in the possibility that God will keep replenishing me. I need to pray, as Barbara Cawthorne Crafton prays at the end of her essay “Living Lent,” Refresh us, O homeless, jobless, possession-less Savior.
I need to see D. and the people who sleep in bus shelters not as heaps of need, not as objects of charity to help or neglect. Not as problems to fix. But as witnesses, like me, in this difficult miracle of living.
I haven’t seen D. in a year, since that night I saw her face covered with a bruise. It keeps coming back to me. It keeps startling me into remembering her better. The way she was before my fear reduced her to a bruise: That the tattoo on her neck was a fierce feather. That she wore a blue hoodie with white reindeer stenciled on the sleeves. I wonder if she loves blueberry coffee like me. I wonder if she would read Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire on the bus all day, like I might do if I didn’t have a safe place I could stay.
I’ll probably never have to find out what I would do if I weren’t so lucky to have an excess of places to curl up with a book. But I can’t let my discomfort with how unfair it is keep me from seeing D. If I drape her face in a bruise, I lose sight of her resilience. If I see myself as the privileged giver and her as the needy receiver, I miss the opportunity to discover that we might have a kindred penchant or two. That we might even delight in one another, over a cup of blueberry coffee. “The measure of our compassion lies not in our service to those on the margins, but in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship,” Jesuit priest Greg Boyle said in a recent conversation with Krista Tippet. “[We] need to seek a compassion that stands in awe of what people have to carry rather than standing in judgment of how they carry it.” I realize my pity for D., and the fear that caused me to turn away from her bruise-swollen face are ways of judging that harden the breach we need to repair. And keep me from standing in awe of the cross she carries.
Though I haven’t seen D. in a year, she’s ministering to me. She’s helping me move from pitying people on the street to listening: To Toby, who loves to watch goslings because “they’re not afraid of me, nor I of them.” To the man with tennis balls on the bottom of his walker, who said “see how far you can fall?” To Paul with “no-term memory” who remembered me nonetheless. To another Paul who practices Qigong under the bridge where he lives. To Gina who can’t stand gloves. To Felicia who prays “every good thing” for me. To Friend Z, who goes to Quaker meeting every week and breaks the silence only once a year to sing “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.”
The ashes were made from burning leaves. Palm fronds that were dried, green to yellow, and carried in churches and streets to commemorate the branches that ushered Jesus into Jerusalem. I dislike the triumphal ways the church tends to celebrate Palm Sunday and Easter: a procession into a royal city and a victory over death. But I love the Ash Wednesday ritual: the remains of leaves on your skin.
I was terrified of the cross until I realized it was once a tree. It had a life before it was cut into an instrument of torture, and long before it was made into a symbol of redemptive suffering. It had a radiant life—roots and branches and leaves that fed on light. And it has an afterlife. Whatever you believe about resurrection, the wood of every cross that falls to the ground nourishes the trees to come. Maybe that’s what happens to our ashes, too. Maybe every cell we lose—to injury, to illness, to trauma—nourishes something new. A bruise generates scar tissue. A scars is a mark of healing.
I don’t know what happened to D. But I’m trying to witness the kinship that could have been.
For this Ash Wednesday, I made my own ritual, a little offering to D. I burned leaves. I lit them in a jar with a candle and watched the embers float on a lake of wax. As they turned to ash, phrases began to arrange themselves into a prayer:
Lord, heal the bruise on D.’s face;
make our crosses light as ash.
O, jobless, homeless, disabled Savior,
help me to see her as You see us
as broken, holy, and soaked in belonging.
Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.