Ash Wednesday is, indeed, about ashes. But it’s also about what lies beyond the ashes. On this day of the Christian calendar, we’re encouraged to confront and contemplate our mortality, our weakness, our tendency to get things wrong. But we’re not to stop there, wallowing in pity and self-loathing. Because we’re not left in the ashes, abandoned, alone and forlorn. Help is at hand, if we choose to accept it. God, our loving parent, our good shepherd, seeks us out. He calls us, his children, his lost lambs, by name. If we let him, he walks with us through debris and decay into a place where there are no ashes. We can’t imagine such a destination, or such a state of being. We certainly don’t deserve it. But that’s the magic and the beauty of the promise of grace.
This time last year, the darkness of Ash Wednesday felt especially pervasive, oppressive and heavy. Putin had just begun his attempted takeover of Ukraine. While the future was uncertain, it was clear that the situation would get worse before it began to improve. And the terrifying consequences would extend far beyond the boundaries of the Ukrainian state. The good news, so far, is that Russia’s tyrant didn’t get the quick victory that he had expected. The Ukrainians, defying all odds, have shown amazing grit and courage, forming an impressively effective ragtag force of small Davids battling the Russian Goliath. The bad news, of course, is that the destructive, deadly struggle continues, despite the fortitude of Ukraine and the support of the United States and many other countries.
In last year’s Ash Wednesday post, I wrote about a Ukrainian woman who was interviewed as she sheltered with her children and others in a ravaged space in downtown Kyiv. As she spoke, her infant daughter slept soundly in her arms. The baby, she said, was a vital source of hope to her and to those around her. The child offered living, breathing proof of ongoing goodness in the evils of a war-torn world. I think of that child and her family now. Have they survived? Is that baby a chattering toddler now, walking boldly with her mother and siblings through the rubble? I pray that she is, and that she continues to be a bright light in the shadows of the ruins.
The promise of Ash Wednesday is like the promise of a new baby. It reminds us not to underestimate the power and persistence of love. Let’s reach out for the hand that leads us through the ashes toward a renewal beyond the reach of death. And toward that unimaginable, but glorious, other side.
Until today, the homemade clothespin nativity that shelters beneath our little alpine trees in the dining room has included only Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, and one shepherd. (Sparkly arctic critters happen to fit in with the high-tech “white sheet as snow” decor.)
The three wise men from the East, along with their flamboyantly curly-haired camel, have been waiting patiently in the background since Advent began in early December.
And now, on the sixth of January, known in the Christian calendar as Epiphany, the long journey of the Magi is complete. They join the Holy Family and pay their tribute to the infant messiah. Their participation in the Biblical nativity narrative is indicative of this important message: God sent his son to be a savior not only for the Hebrew people, but for all the nations. For all of us. For all God’s children.
So in our house, we don’t take the Christmas decorations down until well after January 6th. To do so, it seems, would represent an attempt to symbolically stifle the powerful message of God’s love for all. (It also happens that I’m never ready at this point to begin the laborious process of un-decorating. And it would be inhospitable to kick the Magi out immediately after their arrival.)
On this last day of Christmas, I’ll continue to enjoy the look and lights of the season. They’ll be no boxing up for a while yet.
May the spirit of Christmas sustain, strengthen and bless us all year long. And may it remind us to treat our brothers and sisters near and far, like the family they are.
I hadn’t planned to dwell on the theme of saying goodbye. But life, and death, rarely go according to our plans.
My husband’s father left this world on September 21. We gathered with family and friends in Rochester for his memorial service last weekend, on the day before his eighty-third birthday.
I wrote about H’s dad ten years ago, in a series of Father’s Day posts. (See here.) I referred to him then as Grandpa, because that was who he was to my daughter. As a grandfather, and as a person, he was kind, caring, and fun-loving. Till the very end, he carried with him a jumbo-sized cache of jokes, puns and silly remarks. Many were eye-rolling bad, but some were hilarious, and all of them were offered with the best of intentions. Grandpa understood the value of humor, of never taking oneself too seriously, and he loved laughter.
My husband delivered a tribute to his dad at Saturday’s service, on behalf of himself and his siblings. He wasn’t sure he could get through the talk without breaking down. Our daughter was on point to take over, should he find himself choked with tears. He made it through, with a few pauses to collect himself. He touched on several key aspects that made his father unique. He spoke of how his dad’s interest in science (including his obsessive talent for electrical wiring), his love of animals and music, his devotion to his family and to God, were manifested in unusual and unexpected ways. These were the qualities that made all those who knew him well nod their heads and smile: Yes, that was Dad. That was Grandpa. That was Jim.
My husband spoke of one particularly admirable attribute his father possessed. This was his gift for discovering something good about nearly every person he met. He always claimed to be shy, but he seemed to love nothing better than striking up a conversation with a complete stranger. Wherever he went, no matter the circumstances, he tended to run into “the most wonderful people.” The doctors, nurses and medical staff who treated him (quite successfully) for two types of cancer about ten years ago–they were all “wonderful people.” As were the car salesmen, the repair guys, and the elderly couple behind him in line at Tops Market.
Grandpa treated those around him with kindness and compassion. He sought out and encouraged those qualities in others. When he recognized that goodness within, as he so often did, we were sure to hear about it. Grandpa took to heart, and put into practice, Jesus’s advice to “love one another.” My husband concluded his talk with this question: What would Jim say about me? Am I living as one of those “wonderful people” he valued so highly?
To honor Grandpa’s memory, we’ll try to do just that.
Every year as summer deepens and July 4th comes and goes, my mind drifts back to some of my earliest memories. Over the Independence Day weekend in the early to mid-60s, my parents and I would join my mother’s side of the family in central Kentucky. July 4th would find us, not at my grandparents’ house in town, but, as we said, “up to the river.”
My maternal grandmother Nora spent her girlhood years, as well as much of her married life, on a rise overlooking the Rolling Fork River. Portions of the original log cabin on the site remained and had been incorporated into the white frame structure likely built in the mid-nineteenth century. Dates and details are lacking; my family tends to pass along the stories of the past haphazardly and in shattered, scattered fragments, so that the puzzle always remains incomplete. The photographic record is even more insubstantial. A couple of photos, above, from the 70s, show the farm, with its buildings, at a distance. I took some pictures of the house in 1986 (below) when it was in sad disrepair, after years of sitting vacant, shortly before demolition. I’ve been able to find no images that show it as the center of a thriving farm, and a happy, busy family home.
But I have memories of a time when it was exactly that. In those childhood days, my mother’s oldest brother Leland farmed the land by the river. By then, my grandparents had moved into the Queen Anne farmhouse on the Springfield Road in Lebanon that I remember with great fondness. Leland was the only one of my mother’s four siblings to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps as a farmer. He raised tobacco and Black Angus cattle. There were pigs, some sheep, and chickens, as well. When Leland and his wife Dessie moved into the old house in the 1940s, it lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. The structure was unassuming but relatively spacious. There was a wide staircase off the front entrance that led to several sizable bedrooms on the second floor. My grandmother and her two sisters, Alpha and Maude, had shared one room as little girls. Another was for her three brothers, Thomas, Clarence and George. My aunt and uncle, in the later years that I look back on, lived primarily on the first floor, using the upper rooms for storage. I vaguely remember, in one cozy downstairs space, an enormous brick or stone fireplace. It was suitable for a pioneer cabin, large enough to roast an entire side of beef. In a first floor bedroom, there was a narrow cupboard that could be locked with a heavy wooden bolt. It opened to reveal a slim staircase winding up to a single chamber, separate from the other bedrooms on the second floor. According to my mother, this was a feature common to rural homes of the time. An itinerant worker, or any stranger passing through, could be given a bed for the night, safely shut away from the rest of the family. A practical solution for extending hospitality to those we don’t know well enough to trust completely.
In my memories, certainly the farm at the river was nothing if not hospitable. While I can no longer picture the house and its grounds clearly in my mind, those fuzzy images nevertheless conjure a powerful sense of belonging. I’m not sure if I ever spent a night in that old house, but I passed enough time inside and around it, in the company of loved ones, to recognize it as a place that breathed the breath of home. It was our place. Not in the sense of ownership, but of affinity, of kinship.
And in this sense, the river was our river, a well-loved member of the family. The highlight of July 4th, for that young me, was the time we spent splashing in the water and wandering the banks. From the house, it was a pleasant walk, down the hill, across the road, and through part of a field. Geodes and arrowheads were there among the smooth stones of the banks, for those with the patience to look. I loved the tiny gray-green frogs that hopped about among the rocks. For the most part, the river near the farm was fairly shallow, but there were deeper spots suitable for swimming, and for the thrill of plunging into the water from a rope swing. Rumors of blue holes of unfathomable depths abounded. I was probably in second or third grade before I saw the ocean. “Going to the beach” was a foreign concept to me until I was a teenager. Our family had no need for the ocean. We were river people.
After an afternoon at the river in those old days, we’d head back up the hill for one of my aunt’s delicious meals. Now we’d refer to all the ingredients as locally sourced. Back then we just said home grown. There would be country ham or fried chicken, green beans, tomatoes, sweet onion slices, probably potato salad. Cornbread, always. My favorite dish was what we referred to as fried corn, which is fresh corn, straight from the field, cut from the cob and cooked on the stove in bacon grease or butter with a little milk and a bit of flour. It’s the luscious essence of summer on a plate.
Seems like we’d savor these festive summer meals outside, where we could gaze down on the river. We typically gathered in the front yard, seated in an assortment of metal garden chairs and webbed lawn chairs. The entire farm was a land of enchantment for me as a kid. In addition to the river, there was so much to explore and experience: my aunt’s extensive vegetable and flower gardens, an ancient grape arbor, a number of outbuildings, including the big barn, several ramshackle sheds, and a spring house cut into the side of a hill, still an effective outdoor source of refrigeration. There was the wildly overgrown remains of a one-room schoolhouse that my great-grandfather had built so his children could be taught year-round. Of course there was a privy, still in use after a bathroom was added to the house in the 50s. The ever-present threat of snakes added an element of the exotic.
The significance of our annual “4th up to the River” celebration is suggested by the existence of the photo above. It’s the extremely rare, posed family picture, and it’s nearly complete. Taken at the farm on July 4th, 1964, it includes my mother, her parents, her sister and three brothers, as well as four of the five siblings’ spouses. Only my Uncle Edwin’s wife, Betsy, is missing; she must have been the photographer. I’m in front with my parents, and my cousin, the son of my mother’s sister Jessie, stands in the center back. He is twelve years my senior. I don’t remember ever paying much attention to the absence of cousins about my age. I do remember enjoying the company, and the unique personalities, of everyone in this photo. As I recall, they did their best to keep me amused. Maybe I was akin to the dog who appears to consider itself a human; maybe I didn’t notice that I was the odd one out. I only know that despite my small size, I was never made to feel lesser. I was not talked down to or treated like a precious princess, it seems, but more or less as an equal. I learned to take humorous, good-hearted teasing as a compliment.
The older I get, the more I treasure my memories of those golden days with dear family up at the river. As I look back on that part of my childhood, glimpsed through the haze of decades, I feel again the abiding solace of knowing that I’m loved, knowing I belong, knowing I’m not alone. May the sacred ties of family, of friendship, and of place, beautifully entwined together to create the idea of home–may they never break, but stretch and expand. My daughter is another only child who was often surrounded by adults during her formative years. I pray that she carries with her a cache of cherished recollections that provide her with a similar sense of contentment and assurance.
Fifty-eight years after that family photo was taken, only my mother, my cousin and I remain here on earth. I pray that our future holds for us a reunion on the banks of another river, one glorious beyond imagination, in our true home.
Shall we gather at the river, where bright angel feet have trod,
with its crystal tide forever flowing by the throne of God?
Yes, we’ll gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river,
gather with the saints at the river that flows by the throne of God.
Another Memorial Day weekend has come and gone. Every year around this time, fresh new memorials to lost American lives appear across our country. They commemorate the growing number of civilians forced unwittingly to serve as soldiers in our ongoing hometown wars.
Among these most recently fallen conscripts are the nineteen fourth graders in Uvalde, Texas, who almost made it to the end of the school year. These nine and ten-year old kids might now be relishing the start of summer, had they not been shot to death in their classrooms after returning from an awards ceremony. They include two teachers, both mothers, brave women who did their utmost to protect their students. They include ten people of various ages, from twenty to eighty-six, who had the misfortune to stop by their neighborhood grocery store in Buffalo for snacks, or strawberries, or a cake, at the wrong time.
We should also grieve for the traumatized survivors of these urban battles, whose lives are forever altered. They include the Uvalde children who evaded death because they chose an effective hiding place, or because they smeared their clothing with the blood of their dead and dying classmates. They’ll never see many of their little friends again. There is the young woman in Buffalo who eluded the gunman when another woman lunged at him and was shot dead in the process.
To these survivors and to the families of the lost, we are quick to offer our “thoughts and prayers.” This phrase, if uttered automatically, has little meaning. But we should, indeed, be thinking about, and praying for real solutions. Solving a problem requires opening our minds in order to approach it from various viewpoints. Prayer, to be effective, needs a similar attitude, a willingness to consider answers that might push the boundaries of our comfort zone. Prayer should prompt us to release our tight hold on notions we cling to simply because we have always done so. I pray that we can find some common ground, and that it will move us to take strategic steps toward stopping our country’s epidemic of gun violence.
And as we think and pray to find this common ground, let’s remember that, at any time, we might find ourselves, or our parent, grandparent, child or spouse, forced suddenly into battle. We’re all in this dangerous lottery together; we don’t know when or where our number may be called. Medical exemptions or wealthy parents will no longer keep us from the fight.
It’s Palm Sunday. A day that begs to be called out, to be distinguished from just any other first day of the week. It launches the period known by Christians the world over as Holy Week. Palm Sunday sets an expectant, celebratory tone, one that contrasts, shockingly and painfully, with the shattering disappointment of the terrible day we call Good Friday. In between falls the oddness of Maundy Thursday. So much is packed into the events of these seven days, which lead up to the triumphant culmination of Easter. Indeed, without Easter, the story of new life, hope and possibility would have been one of failure, death and despair. I’ve written about the days of Holy Week several times before. What else can I add? No doubt there is something. But for now, the various demands of life, including several painting projects, prevent me from writing any more.
I wasn’t going to write about Ash Wednesday this year. I thought I’d exhausted the topic, never a crowd-pleaser, in years past. Didn’t I write about it just yesterday? See here for last year’s post. These days it seems like it’s always Ash Wednesday.
The pandemic has put us in a holding pattern of perpetual Lent. Just when we think the deliverance of Easter is about to arrive, it vanishes like a mirage. Perhaps, finally, the light at the end of the covid tunnel may no longer be that of the oncoming train. Could it be that this long, limbo season would at last be brought to a joyful conclusion? It seemed like a real possibility.
And then Putin began his invasion of Ukraine. Our Ukrainian brothers and sisters, anticipating the rebirth of spring, as we all do, are faced with the desecration of war instead. They must confront terrible choices: whether to fight or flee, whether to stay or to pick up hurriedly and go, leaving homes, businesses, farms and beloved animals behind. The enormity of the emerging loss must be confounding and overwhelming.
The path ahead is perilous and forbidding. For the Ukrainians most emphatically, and to a lesser but still substantial degree, for those of us who watch, anxiously, from afar. No easy solution is at hand, no matter how much world-wide support is forthcoming. There will be no feel-good, happily-ever-after ending to this crisis, which will have long-lasting global implications. Lives are being lost, and the losses will multiply as the conflict escalates. It’s hard to imagine any scenario in which Putin might back down.
These are dark days. But Ash Wednesday urges us to look, steadily and without flinching, into the darkness so that we can rediscover the grace of God that searches us out to lead us back into the light. It reminds us that hope remains, even during the darkest days. Even in death. Ash Wednesday tells us not to underestimate the power and persistence of love, light, and life.
Today I saw an interview with a Ukrainian woman sheltering in a communal space in Kyiv with her children, the youngest of whom was an infant, asleep in her arms. She said that the presence of her tiny daughter was a blessing to her and all the others there with her. The baby, she said, was living proof that innocence, that something good, something kind, still exists in the world. Ash Wednesday tells us that evil, despite its bravado and air of military might, is no match for true goodness.
This morning I came upon a patch of bright white snowdrops among the dead brown leaves in a friend’s garden. I hadn’t seen these humble little flowers in years past.
Their sweet, quiet beauty reminded me of the sleeping Ukrainian baby.
Snowdrops, like God’s grace, like God’s love, are persistent. They’ll be blooming before long in the forests of Ukraine.
A blog about motherhood, marriage and life: the joys and frustrations, beauty and absurdity, blessings and pain. It's about looking back, looking ahead, and walking the dog.