Home is an elusive thing for me. Bits of home are in Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Missouri, and Arizona. There are people in all of those places who feel like home. There's the scent of a tobacco barn, of a summer night, of magnolia trees and palo verde trees in bloom. Home, I've been told, is a feeling rather than a place. Maybe that's true, too.
And it's because of that placelessness that I love these ashes. I packed some ashes into little bags last week to send home with parishioners. I have a Ziploc pack of them stashed in my office. The grit and dirt of them is a familiar feeling on my hands. The imposition of them on my forehead remains one of the most grounding acts of the year. The echo of the ancient promise from Genesis sounds, "You are dust, and to dust you shall return."
I know the story of humans made out of the clay from the earth has no scientific merit; I am still amazed by its theological merit. Being formed by the hands of God is less intriguing to me than being formed from the dirt--no, the dust. This is the very stuff that we wipe off our shoes and wash off our cars. More importantly, this dust is the stuff that creates life for us. We do not eat without that dirt. The breads, the vegetables, the fruits, the animals we eat all depend on the dirt.
Most days, I only walk on pavement and concrete. I tried and failed to grow herbs on my patio because Phoenix heat is brutal. The rich smell of freshly turned earth is a memory more than reality now. In childhood, I watched the tractor's blades reaching deep down into our garden dirt, pulling up the rich dirt from below. It would be tilled into something ready to receive the seeds and plants that would grow into food of all sorts. I remember the feel of this dirt under my feet during those first warm days of spring, as I walked along enjoying the clumps of earth breaking apart under my bare feet. A few days later, I would walk behind my father, dropping seeds for corn and beans into the earth. The task got harder as I grew older and farther from the ground, but it remained mine.
Wonderfully, Ash Wednesday calls out the ancient promise, "You are dust, and to dust you shall return."
Perhaps the mortality reminder would be more difficult had I grown up in a different place and time. Appalachia is a little friendlier with death than most places. I grew up trotting through cemeteries, hearing stories of people who died before I was born. They were dear, treasured, and loved even in death. I remember the sketch of her tombstone my grandmother kept folded in her Bible after those plans had been made. I now visit her grave in the cemetery I once walked with her.
There, children were always present at funerals and funeral homes. My cousin and I curiously touched our dead great grandmother when no one was looking. Once the curiosity was gone, we camped out in the women's bathroom on the wicker love seat, sinking our toes deep into the purple shag carpet on the floor.
Older phrases creep into my vocabulary sometimes, courtesy of my grandparents. "Laid a corpse" doesn't sugarcoat much of anything. Having a distant cousin who owned a funeral home made things a little different, too. "He didn't want to be embalmed so George has him in the freezer," doesn't sugarcoat much of anything either.
The fact that you will one day die shouldn't be news to anyone.
But I digress, dust-creatures.
Remember that you are tied to this earth. You are made from it and will return to it. This earth sustains you. Life cannot be sustained without this dirt. Remember that this remains true in the cities and on the farms, and for all people who have ever lived. And you, dust-creature, belong to God through it all.