Living Madly – Dust
On Ash Wednesday, my daughter, Madelaine, and I drove to St. Joseph the Worker Shrine in Lowell. A young priest in a white vestment stood on the sidewalk in front of the church. Following the line of cars in front of us, we pulled up and rolled down the windows. As the priest placed ashes on our foreheads, he said, “Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return.”
I’d always thought of this simple ritual as purely figurative, a reminder of our mortality, certainly, but nothing I felt compelled to dwell on. Experiencing it, however, while sitting in my car with the engine running—yet another reminder of the ways in which COVID-19 has altered the state of the world—made it feel both relevant and significant. If I’ve learned anything over the past year, it’s that no matter how much technology we have or how safe we might feel surrounded by the walls of our homes, anything can happen.
In the days following our visit to St. Joseph’s, I found myself thinking a lot about my mother, who died in September. She hated bananas and scrambled eggs, and was happiest when she was making things. Everyone in my family owns a quilt or wall hanging or tablecloth that she designed and sewed. She was the center of my extended family, so much so that it wasn’t until she was gone that anyone realized the extent to which she held us all together.
At my mother’s request, we had her body cremated. Her ashes sit inside a beautiful porcelain urn in my stepfather’s living room. Dust.
Lately, when I’m hiking through the woods on a local trail or climbing a peak in the White Mountains—away from anything constructed by human beings—I think a lot about the cycle of life, and how the death of a plant or animal often makes the existence of another living thing possible. I stop to look at the fresh green shoots pushing their way up through layers of decaying leaves. Bouquets of curling fiddleheads and clusters of spruce saplings compete for space on top of rotting logs. In New Hampshire’s Ossipee Mountains, my husband and I discovered a large vernal pool where we were surprised to find a pair of wood frogs happily consuming the body of a dead mouse.
Anyone familiar with basic biology knows that all things on Earth, living and nonliving, are made up of the same elements. Oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, iron, calcium, magnesium, sodium and nitrogen flow through our veins as well as those of every other animal on the planet. The mud, rocks, trees, insects, flowers and birds we see, smell and touch every day—even the planets, moon and stars—are mainly comprised of these same building blocks. We are more interconnected with each other and the world we live in than we think.
Spring has always been a time for new beginnings. This year especially, the budding trees and warming sun remind me that as long as we are alive and willing, it’s possible to reinvent ourselves.
With my mother gone, my siblings, stepfather, daughter, husband, nieces and nephews are still figuring out how to go forward as a family. In learning how we fit together and what we want our roles to be, we have a rare opportunity to discard dynamics, habits, ideas and traditions that no longer work. It’s also given us a chance to resolve conflicts and, most importantly, to get to know one another again, this time as the complex adults we all are. As heartbreaking and difficult as this process is at times, I’ve come to see it as my mother’s final gift.
My mother had many hobbies and interests, but I know there were a lot of things she wanted to do that she never got around to. She had regrets, and felt that her life was ending too soon.
There are still books I want to write, places I want to go, and people I’d like to see more often. I have mountains yet to climb. But I know the amount of time I have left on this planet isn’t necessarily up to me. I’m making an effort to waste less time, work less, and to stop putting things I want to do on the back burner in favor of making other people happy.
Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return. Part science, part mystery and part miracle, the dust and we really are one.
Contact Emilie at firstname.lastname@example.org