On Ash Wednesday this year, I don’t go to church for the imposition of ashes, but I find a streak of the dirt-slush that’s been coating my van all winter on my blue jeans.
I notice the streak at the McDonalds in Mankato, Minnesota, where the Fillet of Fish advertisements reminded me that it’s Lent season now. I’d forgotten until that very moment, staring at the grey streak, two hours from home, waiting for my #2 Extra Value Meal – a late dinner on the way to Nebraska for my cousin Traci’s funeral.
Dust you are and to dust you shall return. Isn’t this what they say when they mark your forehead damp with ash? I’ve only experienced the ritual once, but I can still remember the feeling – grease and grit and love.
Back on the road, all that’s left of the thin, February daylight is a scratch of dull orange light at the bottom of the horizon. Before I left home today, I put out my official book trailer for my new book, Night Driving, and now, ironically, here I am, driving in the night – two hours into the six-and-a-half-hour drive.
I’ve been crying all day. About my cousin, who died too young from cancer, leaving two young sons and a husband behind. About leaving my own kids, however temporarily, to drive six-and-a-half-hours to Nebraska. (What is it about tragedy, about darkness, that makes me want to circle the wagons, stay home, curl up on the couch with my family and medicate with wine and snuggles and bad TV?)
I’ve also been crying, let’s be honest, about the trailer video and the book it represents – this imperfect thing that’s on its way out into the world, leaving me feeling exposed and vulnerable, like I’ve gone walking in the winter world without a jacket.
Depression is a recurring theme in my life, and it gets bad for me always at this time of the year. I’m at that part of February where it feels like it might actually pull me all the way under.
I pick up my phone and try to take a picture of the end of the sunset with one hand. The flash is on though, and all I get is the windshield, pocked with that same ashy sleet that’s now on my jeans.
There’s such a thing as too much light, I learned during a long road trip once. It always seems counterintuitive, categorically untrue. Except that here is the photographic proof: too much light, and you can’t see the beauty. Can’t really see anything.
Three hours. Four hours. Five. 169 South turns to 60 W turns to I-29 South. There are almost no cars out on the road on this Ash Wednesday night, and the waxing crescent of the moon casts barely a sliver of light on the snow.
We didn’t observe Lent much in the evangelical tradition in which I was raised, except for the Daily Bread Lenten Devotional, which appeared on the Information Desk in the foyer every year around this time. But I’m told that the forty days of Lent represent the days Jesus spent in the wilderness, enduring temptation, preparing for ministry.
Wilderness as preparation. The concept seems about as unintuitive to me as the idea of too much light. Preparation, to me, seems like it ought to be more purposeful, more productive – less wandering and vague.
I turn on the new Cloud Cult album, The Seeker for approximately the 3600th time this trip.
God gave you brains, now don’t go and drown in your own thinkings.
God gave you hands so you could pick up your broken pieces.
God gave you feet so you could find your own way home.
Iowa turns into Nebraska, and the wind lows against the windows. In the high-beams of the car, the snow blusters and fusses and finally settles, hemmed into so many fields of darkness.
I own one black dress, which I wear to the funeral with a pair of flats that hurt my feet. The sanctuary is full of flowers and tears and a hundred stories of a woman’s immense love and faith and hope.
The official word they chose for the obituary was determined, but we all agree that the word is actually stubborn. Stubborn faith, stubborn love – an unwavering belief in God’s goodness even as the darkness crept further and further in.
I sit there in my pinchy shoes and stare at the old Warner Sallman painting, “Christ at the Heart’s Door.” In that small-town sanctuary, I feel a desperate desire for the straightforward, hope-fueled faith that the eulogizers are describing from their spots in the pews. I’d like to listen to Christian radio and not feel angsty about the lyrics; I’d like to look at the “Christ at the Heart’s Door” painting without feeling irked about the fact that Christ has blue eyes.
If I could give up something for Lent, it would be my questions, my cynicism, my preoccupation with my own darkness. It sticks to me though like ashes on the forehead.
It’s February and it’s the beginning of Lent – forty days of wilderness – and here I am again, looking up at my faith from the muffled underwater world of my recurring Depression. And maybe this is not all that unlike my cousin’s determined faith – stubborn in its own particular way, still looking up.
In the church basement, church ladies serve cold cuts on dollar rolls, trays of veggies, and dessert bars that the Aunts baked last night in Grandma’s kitchen.
Three long tables fill the room end to end, and Grandma keeps putting her small wrinkled hands to her ears: “The acoustics in here are terrible,” she keeps saying, and since we can’t really hear each other talk, we just lean against one another, holding hands.
God gave you hands so you could pick up your broken pieces, the song says, and this is how it goes: hold hands with Grandma, hug the Aunts and the Cousins, touch the kids on the tops of their heads as they scoot by around the folding chairs.
Take a dollar roll. Eat.
Pour the coffee. Drink.
Do this in remembrance. Of her. Of Him. Of the cross and the ashes and the promise of all things made new.
When I leave to start the long trip home to Minnesota, Grandma kisses me on the forehead, and the feeling is not unlike the imposition of the ashes – grease and grit and love.
I walk out into the February wilderness and it smells like cattle and cold and almost, maybe, spring.
The funeral shoes pinch at my feet…the feet that God gave me, I remember, so that I might find my way home.