Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Blessing of Dust

I am home, smudged and sweetly satisfied, marked with dust and blessed by it.

The day didn't begin this way.  It began in pain--fully embodied, attention-hungry suffering, bone and muscle in plaintive agreement and vociferous demand. I greeted the rising sun not with joy, but with more of a whimper.

See, a recent blizzard required the shoveling of many paths, and as we are without farmhands, I pitched in a little too earnestly the day before, leaving my back on fire.  After a restless night I awoke stiff and sore, able to move only slowly and with long exhalations, calling on my old Hatha yoga training to "breathe into the stretch."  The Piper performed all the morning farm chores while I watched rather helplessly, unable to lift more than a piece of firewood without wincing.  I managed to make breakfast and tend to household things, but that was about all.

The chiropractor (desperately sought and providentially found) sent me off with into the afternoon with a gracious smile and gentle warnings.  "Don't expect to be healed all at once.  Over the next few days, you'll find the pain moving around as pathways open.  Rest when you can.  Drink plenty of water.  Be gentle with yourself.  Attend to what your body is saying."

My body said, "go home and take a walk."  Back at the farm, the late winter sun was low and golden over the three-day-old drifts.  I gulped a glass of cold well-water and stepped outside.  The snow near the house was speckled with cinders, carried on the wind from the woodstove.  The drifts near the henhouse were scattered with guinea fowl feathers, the exquisitely-patterned calling card of a Cooper's hawk who had slain one of our birds two days before.  Elsewhere the snow was marked with bootprints, animal tracks, sawdust shavings, and blizzard-blown debris: here a spray of pine needles, there a dry oak leaf.  Everywhere I walked, the once-pristine snow was marred with evidence of life and death, decay and disarray.

And then it was time to gather my gear and drive down the road, into the dark, to lead an Ash Wednesday service at my church--MY church, yes, my new and beloved congregation, with their thrift store and food bank run out of the peeling 1800s parsonage, their town populated by hardscrabble locals and seasonal pleasure-seekers.  We put the folding chairs in a circle in the little parish hall.  We shook the ashes of last year's Palm Sunday branches into a small dish.  We sang, haltingly and hauntingly, and listened to the ancient challenges of prophets:
"Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?" 
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. 

Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? 

Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? 
Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, 
to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; 

when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; 

your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. 

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 
if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, 
then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, 

and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, 
like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; 

you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. 
                          --Isaiah 58:3-12, NRSV

Then we passed around a basin, gently washing and drying each other's workworn hands.  I thought about parched places and watered gardens.  Sitting there in the circle, with my back newly flexible but still tender, I thought about bones made strong.

Another reading, and then it was time for the Imposition of Ashes.  As each person came forward, I pressed my thumb into the ashes and drew the mark on their forehead, saying, "remember: you are dust and to dust you will return, God's beloved child forever."  In silence, we put the chairs away and blew the candles out, then headed out to drive off into the night.

There was grit on the roads and a deep peace over the barren, frozen countryside.  When the pavement gave way to gravel, I could hear the crunch and spatter as my wheels moved over the uneven ground.  The easing of pain, the elemental engagement of the day, the challenge and joy of full embodiment in an imperfect world--all of it rushed sweetly together as the car bounced and jostled down the dark back road.

I have been waiting years for this sweet confluence of ragged edges, this blend of water and ashes into lovely mud.  Praise be for compost and chiropracters and congregations.  Praise be for pain that moves as pathways open.  Blessed be the dust.