It is Tuesday afternoon. I arrive home to find Mama and Daddy immersed in the project of burning off some undergrowth in the branch behind Sandhill. I am planning a party and they’ve decided — actually, Mama has decided — that the place will look prettier without the dead vines and fallen-over trees blocking sight of the pond. Within minutes there are three or four piles of brittle branches and broken limbs stacked into pyres and throwing fat orange flames into the late afternoon air.
Over the next couple of hours the flames eat up the piles of dead wood and, finally sated, die down, leaving matte black scars at the far edge of my yard. Already I have a better view of the still, flat water of the pond, silver-plated with the light of the sun that is fading in time with the embers.
It is Wednesday morning. Ash Wednesday. I wake up in darkness. Shower, dress, make the bed, realize I’ve not decided what I will undertake as a Lenten discipline. For some reason the idea of "giving up" something — chocolate, caffeine, list-making — doesn’t feel right this year. For some reason and for the first time, the connotation that comes to mind has to do with "giving up" hope and that feels contrary to the whole idea of this spiritual journey to the cross.
I go into the bathroom to put in my contacts, brush my teeth. I don’t have to decide until I get to church tonight, I tell myself. There is still time. Something will come to me. I put up my hair, put on my makeup. Yes, I have all day. Something will come to me.
And then it does. Through the half-open blinds I see the topmost edge of the sun cracking the horizon across the way toward Miss Dottie’s and the Indian cemetery. It is as thin and curved as the liner I have just now so carefully drawn across my eyelids. It is the color of mercurachrome and it is pulsing like a hammer-hit finger.
I sit down and watch it. It is moving. Rising, we call it, though we know that’s not what is happening. Imperceptibly the arc grows larger and the color brighter and what had been silhouettes on the landscape grow another dimension. I time travel 40 days hence and see Easter, sense the expectation of things that break open and spill amazement into the world, hear the hymns of redemption that only daffodils can sing. I feel as small as I have ever felt.
My eyes grow large with the very simple realization that when we make Lent about self-denial and self-sacrifice, it’s still about self. When the only examination in which we engage is self-examination, the process creates isolation not engagement. When we focus on what is wrong we can so easily fail to be grateful for what is right.
I catch my breath. I think that perhaps I cannot wait until tonight to have the ashes smudged across my forehead, that perhaps I will this very moment run out into the branch, fall to my knees, plunge my hands into the black soot staining the ground, raise them to my face, and smear them across not just my forehead, but my cheeks, my chin, my nose, my carefully lined eyelids. I think that I must do something to demonstrate to this wide and wild and wonderful world that I am just happy to be here.
That is what I will do. That will be my Lenten observation. I will be happy to be here. I will, every day, be happy to be here, wherever here might be — a courtroom, an office, a front porch, a dirt road. Alone or in company. Harried or composed. I will be happy. And I will let the world know it.
I release my breath. I rise from the chair. I gather my purse, my car keys, my sunglasses. I walk out into the morning where the gentlest of breezes stirs up the remains of yesterday’s fires and sends tiny wisps of ash floating out into the sky.