Dust to Dust: On Life, Death, And Being Here
I spent a few hours yesterday pulling old wires from the ceiling of a building. This is not a part of my normal routine; I am in charge of operations at the place I work, but we were running on a deadline, and so I offered to pitch in to help. I took a couple of hours out of my day, hopped up on some scaffolding and cut and tied old low voltage wires that had long since been abandoned in the ceilings of a high rise downtown. At the end of the day, I was very satisfied to see a concrete, visual track of what I’d accomplished. I’d gotten good work done, and I was covered in dust.
The day reminded me a bit of the work I did when I was in seminary, a part-time gig for the school, working in the facilities department. I’d move tables, patch drywall, paint rooms. During my internship at the hospital nearby, I’d have overnight on-call shifts where I would sleep in the hospital, available for emergencies. I spent a lot of those nights answering pediatric traumas—injured babies, illness, kids who had fallen from balconies because their landlords didn’t bother to maintain basic safety standards. It didn’t take long for me to realize how woefully inadequate I was to put my own baggage aside in those moments, let alone tend to others on the worst night of any family’s life. But I was there, so I decided to be there, and it seared into me the commitment to deal with my shit instead of avoiding it. It is the lesson I am learning over and over.
After those on-call shifts, I would walk to school and move tables, patch drywall, paint rooms. I would get to go to a place where I could fix something, where I knew my skill was up to the task at hand. I would leave, covered in dust.
Ash Wednesday, the Christian day of remembering that we are fragile, mortal things, reminds me that we are all woefully inadequate for the task at hand. We show up, we do our best (sometimes). We have the capacity to do great things, and sometimes we do them. More often, we project our baggage onto others, act out of our own trauma, hurt other people deeply. We dig in our heels instead of admitting we were wrong. We’re really hard on ourselves when we shouldn’t be. We’re not hard enough on ourselves when we should. And then we die.
Yet, I believe that the practice of Ash Wednesday is a gift. It is important to remember that nothing is guaranteed, that we only have now and now and now to deal with our baggage instead of transmitting it. To say I’m sorry. I’m really hurt. I need help. I forgive you. I love you. We only have these beautiful, fallible bodies in which to grow. We are not perfect, but we are here. So let’s decide to be here. We cannot afford to be wastrels of the time we have. Life is too big and too hard for that.
In the office, at the job site, at our friend’s house, at family dinner, at the hospital. We are covered in dust. May we never forget it.