Thursday, February 15, 2018

Love and Ashes

A Presbyterian minister friend of mine reminded me, via her social media post, that yesterday was not only Valentine's Day, but also Ash Wednesday.



Love and ashes.

First the love: Valentine's Day. Ick. For the last many years, I've been a staunch Valentine's Day protestor. Ick about the sentimentality, ick about the consumerism. Ick about about the sexism, the bad chocolate, the over-priced roses, the crowded restaurants, the unhappily married people pretending, the uncoupled people feeling left out and demoralized. Ick, ick, ick. Real love is grittier than red paper lace and candy hearts. Love in real life is troubled, loud, a little insane, playing balls out and for keeps, sweating and bleeding; but also brilliant, gentle, transcending, physical, drunken with joy and laughter. There is no greeting card that can encompass that messy glory and pain.

So much for the saint's day. I'm a little better at the religious observance of ashes, but not by much. Raised as a Lutheran, I'm (very, very) familiar with the church calendar, the cycle of penitence, death, and resurrection told and retold through thousands of years of Christianity. While I have deep respect for the tradition, faith and religion no longer inhabit the same place in my heart. I did not go to church; but I also would not refuse the ashes if a priest or pastor were to offer them to me. Because the truest gospel of all, regardless of belief, is that we are all dust, and to dust we shall return. We are all marked with that failure.

Because we fail, we also fail in love. Imperfect, selfish, uninformed, misguided, frightened, jealous, distracted, exhausted, addicted, proud, irritated, angry, bored, lazy, stubborn--we all get in the way of ourselves, even with our best and highest aspirations.

Because to love is to aspire. To die is to fail. We do both, but we are rather more honest about our aspirations than our failures, even the ultimate one. For me, right now at age 50, with aspirations and failures in roughly (I hope) equal measure, it's time to reflect. I will keep my aspirations, because even though they're battered, they still sing to me when I dream, and that makes them worth keeping. But it's time to be just as honest about the failures. It is time to gather my ashes, sweep them into a pile, inventory the remains of what has burned down.

That all sounds pretty dark, doesn't it? It definitely does in comparison to our culture's current, relentlessly cheerful continuous quality improvement model. The one that says if we can only buy this one thing or stick to that diet or earn that promotion, we'll be some better more perfect version of ourselves in some sunshiny point in the future, chasing an ideal of perfectibility that is always just out of reach, on the horizon. It keeps us forever on the hook of hope and optimism, which are awfully shiny and attractive concepts, but shallow ones. They never pay off, ever, with contentment or harmony or self-knowledge, which are ultimately more satisfying, but require an honesty so brutal that it's easier to stay distracted than face it.

Instead of darkness, though, I'm finding freedom and relief, coming to terms with the failure. Realizing that it's built into the system. All systems, all things. Relationships, bodies, cultures, objects. Me. You. Everybody. That doesn't change (or excuse) the consequences. People hurt because of failures. But the acknowledgement seems to bear a certain kind of witness and power, though, like the crosses of ash on the foreheads of Christians all over the globe. We are all weak together. So now what?

New things arise from failure. That's built into the system too. It runs through our folklore and myth across cultures, from Native American legends to Christ to Brahma and Shiva. It's right there in nature too-- organisms fail and die, are subsumed into the soil that feeds the freshest blooms, the sustaining crops, the ecological chain of life. Out of the ashes of failures and death, something else is born. But we can't love-- we can't aspire-- until we see our failures with clear eyes. Label our mistakes, repair our gates, tend to the wounded, grieve our losses, sort through the rubble to find what was worthy enough to survive and use again. The hard truth is that we'll cycle through love and ashes many times and in many forms throughout our life. I'm beginning to realize that although that part is unavoidable, trying to ignore the ugly half pretty much guarantees we won't get the half we want--anyway not in any form that really sustains us.

I'm living at that transition right now, learning to fully see and account for my failures while I build something new out of the rubble. My hands are dirty, my heart is full, and I'm making little piles here and there of what to keep and what to discard. I finally see that this is the real work of a fully lived life.

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