I didn't expect to start crying, but I did. Reading this book, starting off with Psalm 90, perfect for this day because of the line about people turning into dust. But instead, a later verse catches my eye, and then my heart, and then my tears: "Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, for as many years as we have seen trouble."
This morning we gave our children cheap chocolates and books they will love. At the elementary school I saw streams of children clutching flowers and cards and teddy bears to give to their teachers. I spent the morning trying to take care of myself (exercise, prayer) and working on articles. My husband went to work and my toddler did finger painting, then ate lunch, then we read three books together and I rocked him in a dark room while he sang songs to me. I knew I wouldn't be going to an Ash wednesday service, this year would be like any other. My toddler will sleep during the midday services and then there is school pick-up, then going to a neighbor's house to learn all about pokemon cards, then dinner and clean up and baths and books and collapsing into bed early, so impossibly early.
But I sat down to read a book, and I couldn't stop crying. Today is a day all about love, today is a day all about death. And they are so finely connected, the latter illuminating the former, that I can barely catch my breath. Every so often I let myself feel what it means to be close to death, every so often I let myself feel what it might mean to be loved, and to believe that this life of suffering is not all there is.
Last year for Lent, I focused on one issue to delve into. Looking back, I am amazed at all I was able to do, the books read and the posts published. This year I don't have it within me to blog, to post, to try and convince others to join me as we wage a war against injustice. As is my way currently, I am just wandering my way into situations without any real plan. I am just trying to show up, and to pay attention.
A neighbor of mine stopped eating, stopped wanting to come to events. She told me she was so sad, because of what was going on in her home country. She had told me about her city before, had told me when she was 7 months pregnant with her second child she had been forced, along with everyone else, to flee her city and find refuge on foot. That city, the one that was hers, is now a ghost town, a testament to displacement, in the middle of a desert.
My friend's second child is now a bright and active kindergartener. It has been almost seven years since my friend, her family, and her inlaws were forced to leave. People are now trying to move back, with the blessing of the government, but men with guns are stopping them. My friend cannot eat, can barely talk, because everyone she loves is half the world away, waiting to go back home, facing machine guns and tents in the middle of the windy desert, suffering while hoping things will get better.
My friend asked me to help her protest. To come up with a hashtag. To make people care. I looked at her, this beautiful woman. Who would listen to us? Two people, advocating for a town half the world away? I knew it wouldn't make much of a difference, but I told her I would do whatever I could to help her. I've been reading articles, researching the history, slowly peeling away my own ignorance, slowly discovering another sign of affliction. And without even knowing what I was doing, I knew that this is what I would be doing for my Lent this year. Pouring time, attention, and prayers into this one injustice, this one broken heart, this one issue.
For as many days as my friend has been afflicted, as her family has been cast aside--supposedly for supporting the then-president, but really for the blackness of their skin--for as many days as she has seen trouble, I want to believe there will be days of gladness for her.
I think back to the times in my life I have been the closest to dust. In hospitals, with quiet nurses and hushed voices. A few times people letting it slip how close to the edge I was, followed by bright and cheerful reassurances that everything was fine now. I didn't get to grieve, didn't get to sit with my own mortality, because I had other lives depending on me. For my own suffering, for my own affliction, I received two children. The few nights my heart and my body spent struggling to hold on have been eclipsed by the years of joy of hiding under blankets and reading favorite books and having little hands reaching up to hold mine as we walk around our neighborhood.
But still, I wonder. Who are the people in our lives so close to dust? Who are the ones whose lives are disproportionately filled with affliction and trouble? Who are the ones who most need to hear of a God who will satisfy us in the morning with unfailing love? Perhaps it is your neighbor, perhaps it is you.
In this season of fasting, of giving so much up, I want to sit and stay in the place of ashes for awhile. And maybe, I am writing this out and posting it here, just in case anyone feels the same. If there is an issue or an injustice or story of trouble and affliction God has placed in your life I would encourage to stay with it for this season. To show up, and to pay attention.
I won't be posting about it on my blog, but you might find me occasionally tweeting about the town of Tawergha, in the country of Libya. One story amidst the thousands of suffering. But one story that deserves to be known, and understood, and lamented. And one day, we hope, a story of rebirth to be celebrated.
I still don't quite know why I am crying so much today. I'm not at a holy service, my forehead smeared with ashes. I'm not someone who is very prepared for this season, I am not even really giving anything up. But I am someone who knows what it is like to long for good news, to feel like the days are one long stretch of sadness. I am someone who has been close to death, surrounded by people who have barely escaped the ash themselves. And together, we take it one day at a time. Trusting that soon, we will be made glad together.
(poem by George Herbert, also from this book)