Ash Wednesday is bleak, as true things often are.
The reminder that we are but dust, and to dust we shall return, calls us to a sober season, and that it usually falls on a gray winter day seems fitting to me. The smudge the priest leaves on my forehead often matches the sky as I walk out of church, and the rightness of that stays with me as the words ring in my ears throughout the 40 days of Lent: "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
But where Ash Wednesday usually serves as a pivot between the revelry of the holidays and the solemnity of Lent, there's no real distinction this time. It feels like the entire last year has been one long Ash Wednesday with its constant reminders that we are but dust, and to dust we shall return. We are mortal, and our days don't stretch out in front of us ad infinitum. If we didn't know that before Covid-19 and 2020-2021 in general, we've had a million opportunities to learn since. And the great Deep Freeze in Texas for the last few days has provided several more.
This year I'm not spending Ash Wednesday at church or walking around with a smudged forehead: I'm sitting in my house in my pajamas, sometimes with power and heat but often without, reminded of the limits of my capability and influence by statewide power grid failures, boil water orders from the city, and (most immediately) by a recalcitrant pilot light that refuses to stay lit so that I can take a warm shower. Today I know--deeply--that I am dust. I accept the starkness of that truth.
This year it's the second part, the bit about our inevitable return, that catches my attention. I tend to prefer life as a line in forward motion: first this, then that, then the other thing, then the next, until you reach the end. I have an innate resistance to living in circles because I associate going around and around again with failure: ending up back where you started means you made some error you must go back and correct. But Ash Wednesday's reminder that all of life is designed to be a return to where it started challenges that belief.
Maybe this Lent will be a time to focus on returning to things as part of the process of living a richer life: a time to relax into the repetition of necessary tasks, embrace the revolving door of giving and taking, go back and brush the dust off dreams and ideas that were set aside in former days. To stop chasing after "done" and look forward instead to turning the page and starting again. Returning to writing after a time of keeping things close feels like a good place to start.
Maybe this Lent will bring a softening in my resistance to circles and the courage to leave the straight line behind; maybe I will figure out that life in a circle is so much richer and more beautiful than a straight line ever could be.
As bleak as this day is, it still holds its own kind of hope. True things always do.
How did she get herself into situations like this?
That wasn’t a rhetorical question.
She rolled over and squinted at the clock on the bedside table: 3:00 a.m. She sighed as she extricated herself from the tangled knot of toddler and Great Dane limbs and reached around for her robe and glasses. She shuffled into the kitchen and started the coffee pot, then yawned and blinked at the light from the open refrigerator while she fumbled around to find the gingerbread dough she’d left in there to chill a few hours ago. Two neat balls of dough wrapped in cellophane waited politely on the top shelf at the back in the coldest part of the refrigerator, ready to go.
Alright, then. Let’s do this.
She opened the Joy of Cooking to the spot she’d marked and found the next step in the instructions, shaking her fist momentarily at the inconspicuous line above: “let chill for at least 4 hours before handling,” which had escaped her notice in her first quick skim of the recipe. Sighing again, she got out the flour and prepared the rolling pin, unwrapped one ball of dough, and went to work.
It didn’t take long for her to get lost in the rhythm of the back and forth, over and over, checking the thickness, dusting with flour, rolling a few more times. She pulled out the shiny copper cookie cutter she’d bought that afternoon and placed it strategically across the rolled out dough. She carefully pulled up the bits of dough from the spaces between cut cookies, rolled them into a new ball and started again: back and forth, over and over, more flour, more work with the cutter. After she finished the first ball of dough, she transferred as many as she could fit on the waiting sheet of parchment paper and popped the baking pan in the oven. She made a mental note to buy an extra one soon. Having a second pan would have made this go a lot faster.
She drank her coffee during pauses and asked herself again how she ended up in these situations. It started simply enough, a conversation with another mom during pick up at the Montessori school where both their children spent their days “preparing snack” for their friends and declaring “This is my work!” over anything they didn’t want to share. The class Christmas celebration needed activity stations, and suddenly one casual mention of decorating gingerbread men turned into her committing to bring enough cookies and decorating supplies for half the class. Montessori classes are big—some function of that specific approach to education—so that meant she was responsible for 20 giant gingerbread men. The other mom casually mentioned that it was hard to find the 8” cookies, so it might be best to plan on baking them herself. She chirped back something like “That’s the best part!” as she and her daughter walked to the car. The celebration was a week away. How hard could it be to bake 20 giant gingerbread men?
The oven timer beeped, and she pulled out the baking sheet, took the baked ones off to cool and put in a new set. Looking at the finished ones on the cooling rack, she couldn’t help but feel some pride. They were lovely: evenly shaped, uniform thickness, delicious smell. Turns out it wasn’t especially hard to bake giant gingerbread men after all, and if she had realized sooner that the dough needed time to chill and not waited so late to get started, it would have been a pretty smooth process. Procrastination is a beast, kiddo. When will you ever learn to stop waiting to the last minute? When will you finally get it together?! She sighed and looked at her hands, covered in flour, as messy on the outside as she felt on the inside.
All at once she had one of those moments of thin space, where she could see herself in her eighties, some 60 years hence, rolling and turning and cutting and baking, the recipe committed to memory long ago, preparing “Gamma’s gingerbread men” for great grandchildren to decorate. Feeling things through the eyes of her 80ish self, she heard her current self say: “This moment is temporary, but this tradition can be timeless. You’ll do better next time.” It lingered in the deep morning quiet. She appreciated the reassurance.
One step at a time, one sheet at a time, roll, cut, bake, cool, stack on the platter for school. She finished the required 20 with four to spare in plenty of time to jump in the shower before waking up the munchkin and starting the day.
She laughed at her daughter’s face when the child saw one of the extra cookies on her plate for breakfast. (There were raspberries and bananas there, too, but the cookie was eaten first.) She hummed her favorite Christmas songs as they got dressed and packed up for the day. She wrapped the platter with the gingerbread men carefully and made sure the bag with the frosting, Red Hots, gumdrops, and sprinkles made it into the car.
Later at the party, she breathed in the steam from her mocha from Starbucks—her reward to herself for coming through with the gingerbread men—and smiled at the other mom manning the decorating station. Bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, glowing at the giggles of the children, trying not to think about how long it would be until she could take her daughter home and put both of them to bed for a nap, she remembered the thin space in the early hours of the morning while she waited for the gingerbread men to bake.
“This moment is temporary, but this tradition can be timeless. You’ll do better next time.”
The other day I was hunting for a friend's office at the university where I work. Though I know the roads and sidewalks around campus like the back of my hand at this point, I became acutely aware that I don't often venture into the buildings themselves, much less wander hallways and pop my head into classrooms. That's where so much of the best stuff happens, though, and I felt chastened for my lack of curiosity heretofore by the doors propped open along the hallway.
"Come inside," they seemed to whisper. "Take a look around. We won't bite."
So I did.
What I found reminded me of so much of what I love about education: the sense of possibility, the opportunities presented by movable desks and chairs, the raw materials of creativity and discovery stored in cabinets along the walls. I thought of how hard each student who sits in those chairs worked to get there--and how hard they must work to maintain the right to stay there now.
I also admittedly thought of short people like me whose frames will never find a truly comfortable way to perch in chairs that height. Our legs don't fold into the desired angles in the right places.
I took these photos thinking about how often advice from writers like Anne Lamott and Stephen King starts off with the admonition to "sit your butt in the chair and write," and how I have never given the humble chair its due. Chairs are where we learn and work, yes. They are also where we sit at tables with each other and talk and argue and fuss over and love one another. Chairs hold us when we hear bad news; they cradle us while we snuggle and coo over new babies. They can be cozy and inviting or hard and unyielding, and you can't always tell which will be which until you sit down. We can squeeze into them with someone we don't mind being up in each other's business with, or we can sprawl across them in a way that discourages others from getting too close.
These chairs from that classroom--and indeed any empty chairs--seem like nothing so much as invitations. They are invitations to stop and stay with something or someone. They are invitations to shift some responsibilities around so that you can focus your attention and rest. They are invitations to open yourself to learning, to trying, to adding your energy to the momentum that carries us all forward.
Where is there an empty chair waiting for you? What kind of possibilities might it hold?
On the stretch of I-20 between Abilene and Fort Worth, which I have traveled at least a thousand times, there are three landmarks that mean absolutely nothing to anyone else but are very important to me. The first is a sort of mini canyon; the second is a particular tree near a train track that you can see from an overpass; and the third is a set of ornamental gates at the entrance to someone’s property.
I can’t tell you when or why I first noticed those three things, but for as long as I can remember, I have been hypervigilant about spotting each of them during the drive. I made note of the exit signs before them, as a signal to start paying attention, and the exit signs after them, to catch myself if I somehow missed one. I’ve never actually had that happen, but if I did, I think I would have a hard time resisting the urge to turn around and go find it before I could continue my trip.
There is no logical explanation for why these places are significant to me. Nothing special happened at any of them. They don’t belong to anyone I know or care about. But the thought of making that drive and not checking off those three landmarks along the way makes my stomach churn, and I feel all fidgety. There’s this vague but urgent sense of dread, like something bad would happen to someone I love if I missed even one of them. I don’t usually tell people about this stuff, and if I do, I try to gloss over it as a quirky OCD tendency that is a thing for me but doesn’t get in my way too much.
I was talking to my therapist recently about a few things like this, and as good therapists do, she made me dig deeper. I know in my logical mind that taking a different route to work (which is another compulsion I deal with) isn’t going to set off some cosmic domino effect resulting in a catastrophe. I know that. But I still fidget behind the steering wheel every time Waze sends me down a different road. And a lot of times I just give into the compulsion and sit in traffic on my normal route rather than tempt fate.
I had kind of accepted that these things were simply part of how my brain works. Like I said, they don’t get in my way too much, and I recognize the anxious sense of doom is not the same as a real threat of danger. I can drive between Abilene and Fort Worth without seeing all three landmarks, even if the thought of it makes me uncomfortable. I can take a different route to work. I wasn’t overly concerned about it, and neither was my therapist, really. But she said it sounded to her like there might be more to it that I would do well to explore.
As we talked, she gently guided me to the realization that what lies right under the surface of my anxious dread is a desire for control. In some deep-seated place in my mind, I feel like following these arbitrary patterns of behavior somehow influences the things that happen to me and people I care about. Making sure I see those three landmarks or take the same route to work every day satisfies that place in my mind that believes I'm actively fending off disaster, and if anything bad happens it won’t be my fault. It feeds my sense of responsibility and protective nature--I’m taking it on myself to make sure everything is okay.
Hearing myself say that out loud made me wince because it seems so patently ridiculous. Why in the world would I think such a thing? To find the answer, my therapist told me to look as far back as I could into my childhood, before I gained full capacity for reason and understanding. She explained that children are wired to try to make sense of the world and stuff that happens to them and only have themselves--their thoughts and behaviors--as a reference point for cause and effect. In other words, if something upsetting happens to us at a certain stage of development, we believe it happened because of something we did, and nothing any adult can say--if they even get the chance to weigh in, since most of the time children come up with these explanations without ever discussing them with adults--nothing any adult can say will convince us otherwise (this book also describes the phenomenon). Those explanations lodge deep in our minds and continue to influence our thinking and behavior throughout our lives.
They become a cage for our souls.
So I looked back at my childhood.
Looking at just the first ten years of my life, I had to absorb the premature birth, uncertain survival, and profound disability of my baby brother; my dad lost his job and our family moved from Dallas to Abilene; a beloved uncle committed suicide; a beloved 25-year-old aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer and given a grim prognosis for survival (she died eight years later); my parents’ marriage collapsed and they got divorced; my mom got remarried and my dad got engaged. That’s a lot of change, uncertainty, and sadness to find explanations for, and if all my developing brain knew how to do was think that I caused all of that bad stuff to happen, that’s a recipe for some issues. No wonder I manufacture a bunch of artificial ways to feel like I have some control when reality has been so relentless in showing me I do not. Without knowing or ever intending to do so, the way I absorbed these events built a cage for my soul.
This scene from Good Will Hunting hits me in an entirely different way now. Thank God for loving, wise therapists.
(As I've been sorting through what all of this means for where I am now and where I want to go, the calendar rolled into Lent: the ritual period of removing our own stumbling blocks, taking the planks out of our own eyes. I'm also spending the next few months filling in as preacher for the college ministry I've supported for the past few years. Thus I have both internal and external motivation to dig deeper into this in the context of scripture, because of course. Of course the timing would line up that way. This post originated as a sermon, so please forgive what will seem like a pretty abrupt transition. It worked better when I was saying it out loud.)
Sunday's gospel for the first Sunday of Lent shows Jesus out in the wilderness, fasting and praying, getting ready to step up into his role as the leader of a paradigm shift.
Cue the devil showing up to offer Jesus a comfortable, convenient cage as an alternative. In the reading from Luke, the devil reaches into that human space that harbors an intense desire for control and tempts Jesus to set aside all uncertainty and need. He wants Jesus to secure power and possessions* and physical well-being for himself, and he reminds Jesus that he only has to say the word and everything--everything--will be his.
I would have a hard time resisting that. To have everything I want under my control resonates with the little kid so bruised by life, who longs for security and predictability and influence over outcomes. At the end of the day, the deepest desire so many of us struggle with is the desire to be like God in our own lives. To know what’s coming and to make sure it is only stuff that we want, that we find pleasant and desirable, that makes us comfortable. But the desire to become like God has been the downfall of humans ever since Adam and Eve and the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It’s what we want, and it is what we absolutely cannot have.
Jesus could have it, though. As God incarnate, Jesus could have taken control of all aspects of his life the same way he commanded storms to be still, demons to leave people’s bodies, or the dead to come back to life. He could have consolidated power, possessions, and physical well-being into an irresistible force. He could have made his existence on earth safe and predictable and dominating.
He could have.
But he didn’t.
Instead, he chose to resist temptation and give up control over what happened to him. He chose to turn away from assurances offered by power and possessions; he chose to accept mortality and uncertainty and struggle. Jesus chose to turn his back on the path of self determination and trusted God’s leading instead. What a deeply radical choice!
Yes, part of making that choice was about obedience. Jesus knew what God expected of him, and he turned to God’s word to reinforce his resistance. But I think Jesus also knew that if he chose control and power and all of those things, he would eventually become a slave to them. Maintaining control requires a hypervigilance that consumes time and energy and focus. Maintaining security means constantly looking for and eliminating all threats. If Jesus chose that path, he would spend every waking moment protecting his comfort, and there would be little room for anything else. The devil knew this, and he no doubt hoped it would distract from what Jesus really came to do.
Instead, by turning away from control and power, Jesus chose freedom. His life could be open, lived in a spirit of trust and grace, available to serve where and how God called him. He could spend more time bringing a new thing into the world instead of fiercely guarding his own power. It was risky, yes--there was nothing safe or comfortable about the life Jesus would live. But he was free, which is always better. And he showed us that we can choose to be free, too.
During this time of self-examination in Lent, ask yourself some questions. Where you would settle for comfort and predictability, ask yourself if you can let go of control and be open instead? Where you would prefer safety at the expense of struggle and growth, ask yourself if you can trust God to call you to something richer? Can you accept that a life of faith is NOT a safe, risk-free existence--it doesn’t come with a money-back guarantee? Do you believe that a life of faith can offer freedom from the cages we build for ourselves or that the world would build for us?
This Lent, I’m not giving up sweets or adding extra devotions to my morning prayers. Instead, I’m working hard to unpack a lot of the baggage from childhood, those unspoken beliefs and explanations I made up and then convinced myself were true for so long. I’m taking a break from constant vigilance and anxiety about stuff I never really controlled anyway. I want to be free from all of that and see where that freedom takes me.
This Lent, do the work to find freedom from some of your own cages, from those beliefs or habits that give you a fabricated sense of control or security. Go back to their roots and try to understand the role they play in your life. Learn to resist them by holding onto the truth of God’s goodness and love for you. Let God’s promises draw you into the freedom only He can give. Let go of control and choose freedom instead.
I push myself to take a new route to work almost every day now, and I gently laugh at myself when I get fidgety. The next time I make the drive from Abilene to Fort Worth, I’m going to intentionally look on the opposite side of the road when those landmarks come up; I want to see what I’ve missed all these years.
The cage is open, and I can choose to be free.
*inspired by this post from Living Compass
In education, teachers use scaffolding to build confidence as students take on progressively more challenging tasks and learn to perform them with increasing independence. It's designed to minimize frustration as the student learns, and it plays a crucial role in a student's eventual mastery of a topic or process.
Scaffolding is the exact opposite of throwing someone in the deep end and expecting them to just figure it out. And, not surprisingly, it feels a lot more humane to the student, who is spared the sputtering, flailing, and panic of the sink-or-swim method.
If 2012-2017 were sink-or-swim years (and I assure you, they were--complete with all manner of sputtering, flailing, and panic), then 2018 was a scaffolding year for me. I can't tell you how grateful I am for the more humane approach.
2018 brought a new career field; meaningful creative work; once-in-a-lifetime opportunities like preaching at my mother's wedding and watching my oldest daughter graduate from high school; deepening relationships with people I love; and some bucket list moments like finishing my first half marathon. 2018 brought new voices, new traditions, and a new playfulness to our lives.
2018 had its stress and sadness, of course, but they pushed forward important breakthroughs much faster than usual. Less of the usual wallowing and whining; more of a productive mindset and proactive approaches to challenging situations.
2018 was a scaffolding year all right. And I can't wait to see what will grow under the support of all that scaffolding during 2019. It feels so good to be building something again.
Happy New Year, everyone!
Mother, photographer, writer. Expert in making things up as she goes and figuring things out along the way.