Ashes

Teach us to care and not to care

Teach us to sit still.

-“Ash Wednesday,” by T. S. Eliot

Since moving to Vermont, I’ve thought about ashes more than ever before. Now that we heat our home by wood stove, ashes are part of daily life.

Today is Ash Wednesday, which is the start of the season of Lent (40 days of preparation for Easter) in the Christian church. For Protestants, Lenten practices are sort of all over the place; we’ve been part of churches that barely noticed Lent, and churches that took Lent very seriously. Our family observes Lent in various ways, although we’ve never done the ashes-on-the-forehead thing on Ash Wednesday. (Also, as Ash Wednesday services tend to be quiet, solemn affairs, and we have three very loud, rambunctious children, we don’t do the church thing either).

Wearing ashes on Ash Wednesday is a sign of repentance — regret for past mistakes — to kick off the spiritual journey towards Easter. Throughout the Bible, when people are deeply sorry or sad, they cover themselves with ashes (frequently combined with tearing their clothes). This is the origin of the term “sackcloth and ashes” — an outward manifestation of grief and repentance.

I have a more literal understanding of ashes now that I have to handle them every day. I feel like I’m covered in ashes half the time. Proper ash disposal has become an obsession of Erick’s. Many of his latest “man toys” have something to do with the safe removal of ashes from our fireplace; we even have the “Ash Dragon.”

The ash can and Ash Dragon!

Because the thing is, ashes are really REALLY messy, and they’re also dangerous.

They’re messy because, no matter how careful we are, whenever we open our wood stove little puffs of ash come floating out. Ashes are light, so it only takes the slightest breath of air to make them swirl in all directions. Our entire house now has a fine coating of ash over everything. I could honestly spend every day dusting and sweeping up ashes, and still feel like I’d made no progress. (Which is either depressing, or a nice excuse to just give up dusting).

Some of our dust.

Ashes are dangerous because they’re deceptive: they hide the glowing embers underneath. When we go down to the wood stove in the morning, it looks like the fire has burned itself out and the bottom of the stove is filled with harmless ash. But one stir of the ashes will uncover enough orange-pulsing embers to start up the fire for the day. That’s why proper ash disposal involves transferring the ashes to an airtight ash bin, where we let them sit for at least a day before dumping them on the ash heap in our yard (yes, we have an ash heap!). And even then, Erick is paranoid enough to pour water on top of them.

Our ash heap.

But ashes are necessary. They’re the by-product of what we do to survive the winter.

Ashes: messy, dangerous, necessary.  It occurs to me that those same three qualities also apply to repentance. The word “repentance” probably makes a lot of people shut down right away — it sounds too harsh, too judgmental, too “churchy.” But I’m referring here to all types of repentance: spiritual and/or interpersonal. (Although I’m not sure that there’s a big difference). When we realize we’ve been wrong and ask forgiveness — whether from god or another person — it’s a messy business: nobody likes to admit that we’re to blame when things go wrong. It’s also dangerous: we could get hurt in the process, by losing our pride or failing to win forgiveness.

In the end, though, repentance is as necessary to our lives as the heat sources that help us to survive. Without acknowledging the ways we fail ourselves and others, and without seeking to right those wrongs, we go cold.

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