Archives for posts with tag: ashes

I had been waiting for the call for much of my life, the one that said my mother was dying. Over the years there have been many calls–for urgent care visits, doctor’s appointments, grocery runs, help cleaning the apartment. It’s always serious. This time, it was real. Interstitial lung disease has no cure. The lungs continue to develop scarring so that, with each cold or respiratory event, they can no longer take in sufficient levels of oxygen. This time, her lungs finally gave out. The times I saw her in the last six weeks, I could see, too, that she was sick of living.

“In case something happens” was an oft-repeated refrain. For my mother, the emotional earthquake of the divorce was compounded by a tsunami-force illness, and she almost died. I was seven or eight. Nothing was the same after that. The anger she threw at my father stormed around me, the only child of two deeply incompatible humans. Add to that the bitterness oriented toward her mother would rain down in phrases–“I am a much better mother than her” and, “you’re lucky to have me.” Meanwhile my child sized body absorbed her vitriol year after year, until I left.

My mother was not loving, but she was kind. Some years ago she shared a memory with me of a Mother’s Day elementary school assignment. Apparently I had been instructed to write something about my mother on that thin, off-white, lined paper–the kind with a dashed line between two solids an inch high and with space to draw a picture. While my classmates compared their mothers to sunshine and roses, I wrote, “my mother is kind.”

My mother was angry. Her gaze was like flint with her cool blue eyes and pale skin. When she smiled there was a kind of forced compulsion in her facial muscles to do so. And yet, I can’t truthfully say that she never smiled; it just always seemed awkward. Or perhaps that was just with me. Emotions are foreign territory for some families. I only remember seeing her cry twice in my life–the second time was around dusk when she thought she had run over a racoon and killed it. Any time she told me to do something I thought I had already gotten it wrong. The thought of ever trying to please her burrowed deep within me. It just wasn’t possible.

My mother seeped bitterness some days. The divorce and her illness took away a great deal of independence financially, emotionally, and vocationally. Searching through files for the title to her car, I found cards from my grandfather with notes saying things like, “I hope this helps get you through for the next little bit.” She hated needing assistance. She hated the one who left her vulnerable. She hated how I adored my dad and wanted to spend time with him. The worst thing I could ever do was become financially dependent upon a man.

My mother was not well. She stayed alive through sheer determination, and a fear that I would turn out like my father without her constant correction. On bad days, her conversations were disjointed, jumping between present to past back to present. I remember one particular phone conversation during a heat wave–in the midst of telling me the refrigerator in her apartment didn’t work, she suddenly recounted a story of when my father couldn’t fix the fridge in our first house. When I asked her why, in God’s name, is she bringing up something from 30 years ago, she thought it made perfect sense. A broken fridge is a broken fridge.

My mother had big dreams. The sheer number of organizational self-help books, notebooks from certificate courses, and health guidebooks she left behind, is fodder for black comedy. She never spoke much of travel, limited mobility and adult onset diabetes curtailed her energy and desire to do much. Yet she loved nature shows and calligraphy. I found prints and cards in her apartment that I had sent to her from South Korea, along with other drawings she had collected. She always said she was aiming for a Japanese style in her home.

My mother was kind. Cleaning out her kitchen, I found thank you notes left for her from neighbors. She had only been there less than six months.

This Mother’s Day was quiet, almost ordinary. The previous two had passed with no communication between us. After an especially distressing phone conversation a few years back, I had had enough. Yet there was always the weight of wondering when to get back in touch. Getting back in touch requires having something to say, and I could never find the words. So, as I learned from childhood, at some point you just stop talking.

On Sunday, while social media was a blur of flowers, hearts, deep thoughts, and sincere sayings all dedicated to the wonder of mothers, I sat in anticipation of this coming Friday when I’ll join her coworkers in remembering my mother.

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It seems that the cosmos have aligned to grant us the juxtaposition of Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, a season of penance, with an almost cartoonish holiday of smacking lips, chocolate decadence and saccharine love that is Valentine’s Day. In the realm of social media, which do you choose: hearts or ashes?

This Lenten season starting on Valentine’s Day feels somehow incisively appropriate for the hour in which we find ourselves. The #metoo outcry is the story of amorous gestures devoid of love that are instead an articulation of power, which leaves the ones preyed upon a shade less whole. There is dust on the hearts of those who have been abused. The ongoing chronicling of black and brown bodies gunned down too soon adds to tales of unrequited love for those left behind. Mothers, sisters, wives, fathers, brothers, husbands, no one is protected from the possibility of suddenly losing their beloved. Loved ones turned to ashes. With this change in season comes a call to find new language, new expressions that can re-member wounds. We need all kinds of language and gestures to enflesh pain, sorrow, mourning, rapture, joy, love.

Hearts and ashes are signifiers of life and death. Orbiting together, they express a kind of mourning and loss that is not sanitized. The heart is unrecognizable without the blood that constitutes its function. A heart rendered physically is always wet, viscous, red by oxygenated blood cells, alive and moving. It necessarily extends out through arteries, veins, fluid; it can’t not be connected. The heart is always in contact with something, someone. Otherwise it is completely devoid of life. Ashes have a life of their own, particularly when brought into contact with wind, water, or soil. They are free and light, quick to spread at the slightest breeze or drop of water. Containing them is difficult at best. Where hearts pump vitality and physical life, ashes provide a grainy, pixelated rendering of spiritual life. Hearts run and flow. Ashes settle and permeate.

Blood on our hands. Ashes in our mouth.

Is not this the fast that I choose:
  to loose the bonds of injustice,
  to undo the thongs of the yoke,
 to let the oppressed go free,
  and to break every yoke? Isaiah 58.6

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Matt 6.1

Today is the beginning of a spiritual journey. The goal is not to give something up, per se. Yet, if we follow this journey in earnest, it will kill us. Something must die for life to emerge. That is the strange way of the Triune God, the way of the cross. To walk through this world with baptized bodies means to slough off layers that are no longer living or life-giving. Lent is the ultimate exfoliation. Yet even that doesn’t quite communicate in truth because the Spirit penetrates to the marrow.

The wounds of our society weep for recognition, and the church has equivocated its responsibility to the oppressed and the persecuted. Yet in this season, when we receive the ashes on our forehead, each of us has an opportunity to turn around, repent, and listen. Beginning at ground level, the dust of my own being, the soil to which you yourself will return, Lent is about self-examination. Each of us are located somewhere, among others in a particular place. We are here by some means either of our own choosing or through relational circumstances. There is soil beneath our feet that others have traversed, perhaps even been expelled from, or prohibited from walking altogether. Who we are is also intricately connected to where we are. Hearts moving over dust and ashes.

This Lent I will be asking myself, when and how am I complicit? When have I been silent? Which promises have I broken? How have I allowed my words to crumble into nothing? Blood on my hands, ashes in my mouth. Kyrie eleison; Christe eleison.