Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday March 9, 2011

It is an odd day, and I feel I’ve passed from sunrise to sunset in a kind of haze. There’s the hunger that’s always there on Ash Wednesday. Mine is less than most. I still have two nurslings and cannot make it through the day on as little as I’d like, although I try to make it through the day on as little as I need. There’s something else about this day, though. A sort of mistiness, a sense of a veil being dropped, our grief for our Lord and ourselves surrounding us like a haze.

Prodigiously, I do remember this morning that it’s Ash Wednesday and that we’re giving up grains and sugar, so I feed my rather ungrateful children fried eggs (which they don’t eat) and sliced strawberries with cream (which they eat grumpily while begging for toast). I send Sienna off to school with the Ogre and sit down to do some early-morning blog reading.

I click to Creative Minority Report and read Matthew Archbold’s article about finding God in the Slurpee aisle. I think about that gift, that skill that allows him to extract a deeper meaning from an occurrence that most people would ignore. I’ve always been told that that’s the mark of a poet, to see what others miss. To understand it and translate it in such a way that those who missed it have the chance to see it again, anew, through the poet’s words. And I find it beautiful that he writes about a little girl’s head and her father’s quick hand…there are no doves descending in Matthew’s writing, but there are smaller things, things that should be noticed. Things that I need to hear. Things that I understand better, on this day, with a child in my lap. Things that make more sense to me as a mother than the still point of the turning world.

I read Sally Thomas’ reflections on the first day of Lent. Forty fallows, that sounds so easy. I think of Sally, this faceless woman whose words pierce my heart. If I saw her in a crowd I wouldn’t know her. If she stood at my door I wouldn’t know her. And yet I feel I understand her, I understand how one can read poets of majesty in the evening and scrub play-dough out of the carpet in the morning.

Liam cuddles against me now, dozing off as he nurses, his eyes trying to stay on mine but closing, slowly. I listen to Anna Egan sing on DarwinCatholic. It’s magical, seeing her sing with a baby in her arms, accompanied by the earnest bangings of a small boy. I think of my sisters-in-law, whose voices could fill cathedrals and bring men to their knees. Those voices spend these days crooning lullabies to little children. How lucky those children are, to grow up with such beauty!

A friend of mine is studying at Columbia, under Lucie Brock-Broido. We studied Lucie Brock-Broido together at school, and he loved her poetry almost as much as I did. She fought for him, fought to get him there, fought to keep him there, and rightly so. All my happiness for him was tainted by sick feelings of jealousy.

The other night he answered my unasked question, saying, you deserve to be here with us. You’d swim circles around the rest of us, who are floundering in the depths.

I don’t know how much of that was kindness and I don’t much care. He’ll probably never know what those words meant to me…or how unfortunate it is that I needed to hear them so badly.

Today, Ash Wednesday, there’s a sort of tapestry of beauty around me. In each of our individual corners of the world we raise children, write blogs, sing arias to three year olds. We spend our energies and talents on little souls whom the world deems the least among us. Wasting our potential, our culture whispers.

It isn’t a waste. It isn’t even a sacrifice. After all, what are we giving up? The accolades of a petty world?

There is something wonderful about this life, about giving the best of our abilities to the ones we love most…not to the ones who can give us the most back. To realize that seeing their little eyes widen in wonder is better than all the filled music-halls and published poems and bestselling novels that we might otherwise see.

Laid out before us, Lent, all of it unsoiled, is a thing of beauty. Each year I fail. This year I pray not for the strength not to fail, but for the strength to make myself weak and to admit that I cannot do it alone. I pray for the humility to recognize that the ones who deserve the best I have to offer are already cuddled up in my lap and darting in and out between my legs and kissing me on the head on the way out the door. I pray today that God gives me what I need to fill their lives with beauty instead of dreaming about the beauty of life beyond them. 

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