Ash Wednesday – Finding Ourselves in the Dust

Ash Wednesday will soon be upon us—literally, if we attend a service with the imposition of ashes. Receiving the mixture of oil and ash in the shape of a cross on one’s forehead comes with the reminder to “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

These words are part of a ritual I have long found meaningful even as I resisted what I took to be its message. But my attitude toward the Ash Wednesday service, with its stark reminder of death, has evolved over the years. I’ve moved from rejection of what I perceived as a dark view of life and death, to acknowledgment of death’s inevitability, to appreciation of a ritual that honors the reality of our limited time on earth. But I’ve always thought of that return to dust as happening literally, at our physical death.

Last night I dreamed I was on my belly in a dusty yard, struggling to move forward without being able to raise myself up. I was without strength or power, in contact with the ground. I could see plants growing at eye level and I thought of the healing herbs I wanted to grow. Later in the dream I was walking, but cars zoomed by leaving me in the dust.

I woke from the dream with a sense of vulnerability, yet feeling oddly peaceful. As I worked with the images from the dream I felt a shift occur. My experience of dust in the dream opened a new way of understanding the dust proclaimed in the Ash Wednesday liturgy.

Returning to the dust doesn’t happen only at our death. We return to the dust over and over as life knocks us off our feet. It feels like a defeat, which it is: a de-feat (or even de-feet), not something we accomplish but something done to us, something we endure. Some power outside our control brings a new reality we wouldn’t have chosen. Our plans and expectations turn to dust, and life as we know it is over.

But in the dust we’re back where we came from, supported by our connection with the earth. The word humble has the same root as humus (Latin for soil) and human. In the humility of experiencing our limitations, we find ourselves supported by a greater strength.  Being humble puts us in touch with what Paul Tillich called the Ground of Being. Our vulnerability brings us into contact with the real support life offers, as opposed to the illusory supports we try to create for ourselves.

Finding ourselves in the dust is a blow to the ego but growth for the soul. It grounds us and helps us remember who we are. On the ground we’re in the place where life is rooted and healing herbs grow. We experience the solidity of the earth upon which we walk. We remember our dependence on it, our oneness with it. And throughout our time in this world, the earth strengthens us as we regain our balance and rise again.

The ritual of Ash Wednesday’s imposition of ashes is a reminder of how brief our lives are. But it also speaks to the many times we find ourselves in the dust over the course of a lifetime. In those times the dust can be a place where we encounter the grounding and strength always supporting us. In the dust we encounter the essence of life and of ourselves. Ash Wednesday isn’t the dismal ritual I once thought it was. Rather, it points to how the heart of life is often hidden in the places where we least want to look.

Glimpsing the Lady Within

I recently made the early morning flight to New York City, leaving Bluegrass Field in the dark and approaching LaGuardia with the sun just high enough in the East to set the city aglow. Passengers on the left-hand side of the plane leaned into their windows as the iconic outline of Manhattan came into view in the distance. Its bristling skyline appeared to rise straight out of the water.

“Do you see it?” the woman behind me asked her traveling companion.

“Not yet.”

I could feel their expectancy. And then, “There she is!”

Standing apart from the mass of gleaming towers was the lady of whom they spoke. Lady Liberty, of course, whose circular island pediment and graceful stance contrasted with the hard lines of the city. Whose form lacked the height of those structures behind her, yet whose singularity made her recognizable, accessible, beloved.

Window shades snapped open along the length of the plane as others claimed the view. Lady Liberty, like nothing else during the flight, enticed passengers away from their phones, their books, their reverie, and their sleep.

She matters. Because of the immigrants she welcomes to this country, yes. But she is more than our ambassador. Our connection with her is deep and visceral because she welcomes each person, including us, to be part of this nation. She invites the weary to take heart, she upholds the dignity of the oppressed, and encourages the heartsick to persevere.

She reminds us that we are strong enough to be compassionate and wise enough to follow her light. She is the best in us, and we rouse ourselves from slumber to catch a glimpse of her because she is how we will meet this day.

A Different Way to Fight

“Everyone talks about fighting cancer,” a dear friend in the midst of that struggle tells me. “They talk about it as a battle. The doctors say you have to fight.” But she goes on to say that “battle” isn’t the best way to describe what she has to do.

Labyrinth Covered in Leaves


A battle implies a clash in which the enemy can be vanquished. It suggests a singular foe. But my friend understands that her challenge is to continue living her life with the people she loves, even as she endures treatment and manages its details. The cancer she contends with is a chronic condition that will, in some way, remain present in her life. The hope is less for a victory than a truce.

For someone who does not want the disease to define her, making it the primary focus of her life would be a kind of giving in. To cultivate the discipline of mind and strength of heart to live and love, even through the ongoing demands of cancer treatment, is an entirely different mindset.

My friend is required to spend a great deal of time caught up in the medical machine that is our health care system. Even with the support of family and friends, she has a difficult task in trying to bridge the gaps between the realms of the different physicians involved in her care, and in navigating the labyrinth of the way our doctors and hospitals practice medicine. All of that is on top of the myriad details in keeping everyday life on track. It would be easy to allow those challenges to take over.

But she continues to be involved in the lives of her family and friends. She spends time with her grandchildren, works on her poetry, has coffee with her writing group. She maintains her interest in politics as well as her walks around the park, and lends a sympathetic ear to others. She remains grounded in her life even as she undertakes the requirements of her treatment.

Her battle is for her life, at least as much as it’s against cancer. She tries to avoid being consumed by the fight, so she can enjoy what is precious to her. She resists being focused only on treatment, not wanting to put off her life until later. Her fierceness is in her determination to live, even now.

She is like a birch tree, rooted in her life, bending with the force of the strong winds blowing and straightening when they subside. I respect her strength and courage, and I appreciate her wisdom. I am blessed to have her as a friend.