It is a big day for my Jesusy people, Ash Wednesday, even as in all great wisdom traditions we begin to celebrate the movement away from the dark and the cold toward new life, warmth, renewal. We begin the season of preparation, consecration, as we move toward new life, resurrection, renewal: Spring. For some people–not my tiny princess self–it is a day of fasting, in solidarity with the world’s poor, and to symbolize our hunger for God, for Goodness, and God’s hunger for us, just about the most boggling concept of us. His or Her hunger for ME, mealy-mouth, self-obsessed, tense, doubtful, cranky me, Al Franken? It is a day to rend the cloth of our hyper-busy lives, distraction that keeps from noticing and living the basic message of Love, of living in wonder rather than doubt and trance. It is a day to remember the finality of death, that to dust we shall return, all of us, even the little ones and young people we most adore; as a theologian once wrote, death is God’s No to all human presumption. Yet we are forced to answer the question of why are we even here? Why, in all that spermy eggy chaos, were we specifically–you, me–given the golden ticket of life, of Life? How do we live as women and men on this cold, dangerous earth, in these bizarre fever dream times, and stay open to presence, vulnerability, miracles?? How do we till the field?
I remembered yesterday that the wonderful amazing Michele Norris and I spoke about this on NPR seven years ago, so I’m going to quote some of that here:
“Easter is the most profound holiday in the Christian tradition,” Lamott says. “Christmas was an afterthought. I think two things come to mind. One is something that the great writer Barbara Johnson said, which is that we are Easter people living in a Good Friday world. And I think that every year the world seems more of a Good Friday world. And it’s excruciating, whether it’s Syria, or whether its your own best friends and their children who are sick, which is something that makes no sense when you think about a loving God. But it’s a time when we get to remember that all the stuff that we think makes us of such value, all the time we spend burnishing our surfaces, is really not what God sees. God, he or she, loves us absolutely unconditionally, as is. It’s a come-as-you-are party.”
In the essay “Ashes,” from Traveling Mercies, Lamott wrote about her son, Sam, when he was much younger — in it, she attempts to explain Ash Wednesday to the child, but he just wants to watch television.
“I remember that Ash Wednesday he happened to have Alvin and the Chipmunks on,” muses Lamott. “And they were singing ‘Achy Breaky Heart,’ and I felt like I might have a complete nervous breakdown. But Ash Wednesday, to me, is about as plain as it gets — we come from ashes and return to ashes, and yet there is something, as the poets have often said, that remains standing when we’re gone. So in Easter — and Passover too — something that happens is that we stop. This is the ‘dark night of the soul’ stuff that John the Divine writes about; that in that stopping we may fall into an abyss that we have been trying to outrun since we were little children … and the American way, I think, is to trick out the abyss so it’s a little bit nicer. Maybe go to Ikea and get a more festive throw rug. But in Lent, if you are a person of committed spiritual growth, you do stop.”
When asked how the meaning of Easter has changed for her over time, Lamott describes an experience that changed the meaning of the holiday for her:
“When I was 38, my best friend, Pammy, died, and we went shopping about two weeks before she died, and she was in a wig and a wheelchair. I was buying a dress for this boyfriend I was trying to impress, and I bought a tighter, shorter dress than I was used to. And I said to her, ‘Do you think this makes my hips look big?’ and she said to me, so calmly, ‘Annie, you don’t have that kind of time.’
‘I think Easter has been about the resonance of that simple statement; and that when I stop, when I go into contemplation and meditation, when I breathe again and do the sacred action of plopping and hanging my head and being done with my own agenda, I hear that, ‘You don’t have that kind of time,’ you have time only to cultivate presence and authenticity and service, praying against all odds to get your sense of humor back.”
“That’s how it has changed for me,” Lamott continues. “That was the day my life changed, when she said that to me.” On Easter, “I’m going to go to my little church, and we will have a huge crowd of about 60 people. And I will cry a little bit … out of joy, and then I will go home, and I will have 25 people — 15 relatives and about 10 riffraff, i.e., my closest friends — and we will sit down and we will overeat, together, which is just about the most sacred thing we do.”
So God bless you all today, GOOD. Whether you celebrate Ash Wednesday or not, it is always a day for awakening. Don’t hit the snooze button. Wake up, right now, spritz yourself with a plant mister, look around, gape, give thanks, help the poor–as my grandson always says, “Deal?”