Ashes To Ashes

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Yesterday in therapy my counselor asked if I liked being a lawyer. I said yes, and then went on a tangent about how much harder it was at my previous job at a big firm downtown, where I was petrified of showing my real personality. I established rigid boundaries between my work self and my real self and flattened myself out into a picture of the kind of person I thought people wanted me to be. I spent a lot of time thinking about my work wardrobe, buying the cheapest versions of fancy lawyer clothes I could countenance, and then hating them all. I was too weird, I thought, for the workplace. Of course, with few exceptions, I largely failed connect authentically with my coworkers. It wasn’t my law firm’s fault. I was just insecure, afraid of getting fired. Even then, I liked my job because I like being a lawyer. But I was also suffering deeply from the fragmentation. Seven years is a long time to hide who you are.

Yesterday was also the first day of Lent. I left the office a few minutes early to meet my family for the evening Ash Wednesday service. The elevator doors opened to take me down and there was a man, close to my age, with a dark smudge on his forehead. I did a double take. The mark was jarring.

Stop staring, I told myself. It’s just the ashes. You’re about to go do the same thing.

Yeah, but, I shot back at myself. You would never do it before work.

I want to be a Christian in my heart, but only sometimes, and in my head almost never. I want to wear it on my sleeve–or on my face, as it were–not at all.

At the church, R and I had forty-five minutes to kill while our daughter rehearsed with the children’s choir. You can always count on the children’s choir to be featured at the sparsely attended weekday services. We settled down on a bench outside the chapel and downloaded notes from therapy, notes on parenting. We watched our senior pastor walk the labyrinth in the snowy courtyard and burn last year’s palms to make this year’s ashes. Before she went out in her parka and fuzzy hat she warned, Don’t worry about what you see out there, I’m just making some Jesus magic. When the smoke blew up around her, I wanted to take a picture through the wavy glass windows, but refrained. I thought the ritual might be sacred. Also, I gave up Instagram for Lent, so what would I even do with it? A few minutes later, R pointed out that Pastor Grace had her phone up high, snapping her own photo of the fire. For Facebook, she told us when she came back inside.

Later, when we were settled in the chapel, D in the front row with the choir and R and I few rows back, I tucked myself under R’s arm and we traded jokes and snickered as we waited for the service to start. R doesn’t come to church often, so it’s something a novelty to have him there. Our irreverence continued during the service, when R said something blasphemous and a hymnal in rebuke thudded from the shelf under the pew and landed on his feet. We almost exploded in laughter when the choir sang at the way D thrust her tone chime into the air like a sword, face straining, eyes wild, belting out “Now Is The Acceptable Time.” She seems, so far, to have inherited my deep love of performing and utter lack of awareness about the way I move through the world. When the time came, D and I approached the altar together. We each took a piece of coal to rub in our hands. D tried to pass hers off to me. Here, you can have this. It smells bad. We dropped our coal in a plastic bucket and received our ashy tattoos. R stayed in his seat.

I thought about how, when I was Mormon, it bothered me that R didn’t come to church, but it bothered me even more when he did. It bothered me how he kept his mouth closed during hymns, his eyes open during prayers. It bothered me when he stage-whispered comments about the church leader dozing off behind the pulpit or a too-long talk or a painfully sincere testimony. There’s a way to act in church, I thought, and you don’t have to be Mormon to figure it out. I didn’t like what it said about him, that he couldn’t he get with the program, and I didn’t like what it said about me, that I couldn’t just enjoy having him there. We were, I thought, too worldly to be Mormon. I flattened myself out into a picture of what I thought a Mormon needed to be, straining myself and my marriage in the process. It wasn’t Mormonism’s fault. I was just afraid people would find out who I really was, and the jig would be up. Of course I suffered. Thirty years is a long time to hide who you really are.

I haven’t been to an LDS service in a long time. I am wildly grateful to have found a new church home, something I never expected after leaving Mormonism but, honestly, think the church is getting the better end of the deal. Churches in general, in my view, are blessed to have any members at all. And the fact that my new church gets the realest, most authentic version of me? The silly and the snarky and the deviant and doubtful all rolled up with the serious and faithful and the diligent and sincere? The one that comes with a hilarious and filthy-mouthed husband who doesn’t know how to use his inside voice? The church should thank its lucky stars.

This year was only my second getting ashes. Last year, I was mortified the entire long walk to the altar and back again, convinced everyone was staring at me, especially my ashless husband. It felt horrifying to be revealed for the Christian neophyte and, simultaneously, the religious freak I still am. Somehow, though, I grew more in a year in my new faith than I did in many in my old. This time around I forget about them straight away, not just the stain on my own head, but the one on my daughter’s, and the one that R refused to wear. The ashes don’t matter. The baptism doesn’t matter. The church doesn’t matter. We were all dirty and now, headed into Lent, we are all clean.