We've been walking around with ashes on our heads today, looking a bit odd. "What's that on your forehead?"
A reminder of my mortality.
The priest who administered my ashes actually said, "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel," a legal alternative, but, though it may sound morbid, I prefer, "From dust you came and to dust you shall return."
It's the truth. I live in this body, and it's dying. It's not that I have cancer or some other terminal disease as far as I know -- none, that is, except that of being a mortal creature. That is terminal. I'm dying, and so are you. I'm closer to death today than I was yesterday, even if my death is many decades in the future.
I don't know, of course. It could be later today or tomorrow.
It's more than a little unsettling, this idea that today could be my last. I'm not done. Neither was my mother when, at 53, she died anyway. I don't get a guarantee. I don't get any sort of assurance that I will live to see my grandchildren or die peacefully in my sleep.
But whenever it happens, whatever the cause, old age or violence or disease, my day will come. So will yours.
How can we prepare? I still have trouble imagining a world without my mother, and I live in one. How can I imagine the world without me?
Among many other things, the season of Lent and Ash Wednesday in particular remind me to wonder about it. What have I created? What have I destroyed? What will I leave behind?
I was talking last evening with my daughter about an incident, some unkind words spoken by a person in authority, that shamed her. We tried to find some sympathy for this woman, but the truth is, she is spewing poison into the world. My daughter, on the other hand, even at 16, was able to absorb the poison and, through prayer and the support of her family, allow God to transform that poison into something wholesome. My daughter doesn't have to hold that shame and pass it on to someone else. She is sending it back where it came from, not as shame, but as compassion.
What we don't transform, we transmit. My mother was a good woman with wounds of her own. Some she transformed. From those places, she left me a firm foundation. From the unhealed places, she left me wounds of my own. Now it's my turn -- and my daughter's turn. God-willing, someday it will be her daughter or son's turn. That will be my legacy.
There will be a day when all of my best efforts will be in the past. The body I walk around in, the only crucible of transformation I'm given, will decay and return to the earth. It seems wise to put it to work now, while I still can.