Ashes to ashes, stardust to stardust

It’s Ash Wednesday today in the Christian tradition and marks the beginning of the Lenten season. For several years, this was the Wednesday that I would mix olive oil with burnt palms, dip my thumb into the mixture and make the sooty sign of the cross on the foreheads of my parishioners as they knelt before me, reciting the words to each of them, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” But the last year that I did this, I said the words, “Ashes to ashes, stardust to stardust.” For me, this more adequately summarized how we as human beings have come into being–and where we shall return. We are not just of this earth; we are of the cosmos.

On this Ash Wednesday, I was with my 95 year old mother, sitting at the table in a skilled nursing facility with 3 other women near 90, telling stories of their lives. Although recent memory is foggy for them, they could easily bring up those from childhood– churning butter, washing clothes in a wringer washer, eating only beans and corn during the Depression, the kind words of their mother, the pranks played by a brother or the Christmas Eves when Santa would come down the stairs with presents. They had lives full of hardship and pain, loss of sisters to scarlet fever, loss of a son in a car accident, the loss of three brothers in the war. As I sat with them and with the other 20 or so women who slept in chairs and pushed walkers around the room, I could see that it could look depressing with one set of eyes. But with another set, I could see how they were still shining even as their lives are waning.

Starlight yet.

We are such “perishable miracles” as Maria Popova says. I follow a her blog called Brain Pickings. This week (February 23, 2020) she explored the marvel of our existence by saying, “the central animating force of our species, the wellspring of our joy and curiosity, the restlessness that gave us Whitman and Wheeler, Keats and Curie, is the very fathoming of this fathomless universe — an impulse itself a marvel in light of our own improbability(my emphasis). Somehow, we went from bacteria to Bach; somehow, we learned to make fire and music and mathematics. And here we are now, walking wildernesses of mossy feelings and brambled thoughts beneath an overstory of one hundred trillion synapsese.”

I often ponder that we know a lot more about our universe than ever before; we can peer into space back billions of years. We’ve identified millions of stars, planets, nebulas, solar systems, black holes. And yet so far, there isn’t a blue and green planet where life as we know it exists. I have heard it said by cosmologist Brian Swimme that if Earth was tilted just a few degrees differently, life on Earth would not exist. I sense more and more how much I don’t get it—I and every other being is simply a cosmic miracle.

The physicist and mathematician, Brian Greene writes, (from the same blog by Popova), “Even so, to see our moment in context is to realize that our existence is astonishing. Rerun the Big Bang but slightly shift this particle’s position or that field’s value, and for virtually any fiddling the new cosmic unfolding will not include you or me or the human species or planet earth or anything else we value deeply.We exist because our specific particulate arrangements won the battle against an astounding assortment of other arrangements all vying to be realized. By the grace of random chance, funneled through nature’s laws, we are here.”

And yet we are perishable. Ashes to Ashes. Stardust to Stardust.

Greene goes on to say, “In the fullness of time all that lives will die. For more than three billion years, as species simple and complex found their place in earth’s hierarchy, the scythe of death has cast a persistent shadow over the flowering of life. Diversity spread as life crawled from the oceans, strode on land, and took flight in the skies. But wait long enough and the ledger of birth and death, with entries more numerous than stars in the galaxy, will balance with dispassionate precision. The unfolding of any given life is beyond prediction. The final fate of any given life is a foregone conclusion.”

I no longer see that as a grim statement. Yes, there is yet a part of me that shies away from death–that part of my primal brain whose role it is to survive. And I don’t want to lose friends, let alone my children or grandchildren. I don’t want to lose my mother. Yet it is the truth. We live and we all die. We can blind ourselves not only that we are miracles, but also to this–that we are “perishable.”

Ash Wednesday serves to mark us physically with this remembrance. The black cross on the forehead of the congregation reminds them of the death of Christ, not the resurrection. It links our humanity to the story of God’s in human form. To be human is to die.

My desire is to grow in acceptance of that. To even be content with it. And let it fuel my gratitude, my fire, my creativity, and my utter awe.

Ashes to ashes. Stardust to stardust.

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey

Have you noticed that sometimes it’s hard to go back to a book you’ve already read? Some of it is already knowing the plot, already relishing your favorite parts, already surrendered to the ending whether it’s the one you wanted or the one you didn’t. I was surprised that I felt this way about going back to review, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey by Rachel Joyce.I think it was such a tender story that I wanted to keep those virgin feelings, not analyze them post-read. 

But I also see what I missed now that I’m going back through the chapters. The book is loosely organized around three letters. Both this book and it’s companion (The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry), begin with the letter that Queenie writes to her former co-worker, telling him that she has cancer and there is nothing left to be done. She thanks him for his friendship and assures him she is at peace. But for both of them, there is a part of their story that has no peace. The book recounts all that has been left unsaid and untold in their relationship and all the regrets that still linger. 

This is the substance of most of the book, contained in the form of a second letter to Harold. In this second letter, she writes to make a full confession of how she feels she has wronged him. She has to write as the cancer surgery has taken her tongue and the ability to speak. She is intent in this endeavor as she waits for Harold to arrive on his pilgrimage to her, always wondering if he will make it before she goes.  Assisting her in completing this second letter is the enigmatic French Sister Inconnu, one of the nurses at St. Bernadine’s Hospice in Berwick-Upon-Tweed. Whenever she wants to give up, Sister Inconnu is there to give her strength and wisdom. The following is a passage from the book as Queenie is entering her last days and has been taken out to sit under the shade of a tree. 

Suddenly Sister Mary inconnu let out a hiccup. She slapped her hand to her mouth but another one followed and another. I realized that what she was doing was laughing. ‘

“What is it?” I asked. Something like that.

  A further  laugh erupted from her with a gigantic splutter. She had to grip her stomach and lift her feet. Rocking this way and that, she pointed upwards. HOO HOO HOO, she went, while still pointing up at the tree. That was all she could manage in the way of communication. “Look at the branches, Look at the leaves. When you really look, you see how fantastic it is. It’s so perfect you have to laugh!” She guffawed. 

Now that she’d said it, I couldn’t see how I hadn’t noticed before. The tree above us was a canopy of bright lime leaves, each one shaped like an eye with perfect crinkle-cut edges. Where the sun caught them they shone luminous, while those in shade hung a deeper green. I took in the solid torso of the trunk, the curls and brindles in the gray bark, the milky covering of moss where the sun could not reach. I gazed at the exuberant bow of the five central branches, like sturdy shoulders, and then I moved my eye to the entanglement twigs and leaves….It was the most marvelous thing, that tree, now that we sat and took notice. It was hilarious.  

We sat, weeping with laughter.  Ha, Ha went the tree, look at those funny ladies. One with a wimple. One in a wheelchair. Look at the beauty of them. 

This particular passage at first puzzled me; I thought the first response to recognizing the beauty of nature is awe, not laughter. In fact, laughing seemed to discount this moment of recognition when we realize we are not separate from creation. But then I began to appreciate this response, if not from the viewpoint that it is hilarious that we think we are! (Especially trees—see my prior post on the Overstory.) Yet also in my experience, that One-ness does take on pure joy and laughter. Particularly when I remember having a gray whale come up beside the small boat I was in so that it’s eye was just below the surface of the water and we stared at each other for a timeless time. Afterwards I laughed and laughed and laughed at the beauty and joy and surprise of it all. It was so natural to laugh, so compelling to laugh, so precise to respond in exactly this way. I think this passage is poignant simply because Queenie is going to die in a day or so. That here at the end of her life, when there are so many choices, she “sees” the beauty that was there–and laughs.

With each vignette of the different hospice patients, with each struggle to survive another day, with each small way the Sisters take to make each day comfortable and enjoyable for the hospice patients, an overall story of love is told, as well as Queenie’s love story. Even the grand story of the pilgrimage and all the attention it draws, fades in the more telling story of how life is lived in the moment, what is noticed, how our souls respond. Queenie comes to see that what she thought was lost in her love of Harold, was always there.

I don’t want to spoil the ending as there is a surprise, or two. All that is contained in the Third Letter that Sister Philomena writes to Harold after Queenie dies. 

It is possible to go on a long and transforming pilgrimage without ever leaving the place you are. 

What Life Brings

I had hoped to do a lot of writing on my second week in Mexico, but strangely my computer refused to turn on, even though it was fully charged. The humidity? The salt air? Divine intervention? Writing in my journal had to suffice ( by the way, I love that word and someday I’m going to write a whole blog on words I love). I diagnosed my computer as homesickness and miraculously, it seemed to be true. When I got home, it worked perfectly the next morning and henceforth.

But the other unexpected turn of events actually began when we were still in Mexico. My close friend of 35 years began to get stomach symptoms. We weren’t too worried; it was Mexico and probably there was some bacteria here that didn’t agree with her. A Mexico Bug was our diagnosis. Sadly my diagnosis this time was woefully wrong. When she went to the doctor the morning after we returned, she was sent to the ER, had a CT scan and called me that night. Metastatic ovarian cancer. Exploratory surgery scheduled three days later. Chemo started two days after that. All this was a 9 days ago now. I’ve spent most of that time with her either at the hospital or her home, taking steps one at a time on a path where you can’t see around the next corner. The rest of the time I’ve been texting, calling and emailing the web of friends who love her. That has been my writing practice this past week, but the content is much the same each time. The news. Acknowledging the shock. Encouraging them that it sounds bad but there’s a good prognosis–80% remission, even a 5% chance of cure. Not a death sentence anymore but a chronic illness that can be managed with quality of life.

When I was 9, I was told my two year old brother was going to die from a rare form of muscle cancer. My response then was to shout out, ‘NO!” and run away. When I was 19, the same news, only this time my 15 year old sister and bone cancer. I crumbled. The same news at 34 when my dad was was diagnosed with lung cancer. I froze and felt helpless. Another sister with breast cancer and brother with kidney cancer but less serious prognosis. So cancer and I are no strangers.

I’ve been watching myself this time; shock yes. Numb for a while. Very tired. But I’m not falling apart. I’m not running away. If anything, this past week has opened me up to such love and gratitude. These new eyes are not just for my friend, but it’s as if I have new eyes for everyone, as if I can see their beauty so clearly– or as Thomas Merton once put it, “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

I can only attribute this change to the years of being with what life brings. And to some of the spiritual work I’ve engaged in with a whole heart. My current path is the Diamond Approach and a recent teaching by Rosanne Annoni on acceptance has seeped into my soul and given me some of this new vision. In it, she acknowledges that from the ordinary perspective, acceptance feels like the opposite of rejection. So if I’m going to accept my friend’s diagnosis, it must mean I can’t reject it and I have to bring it closer. I assume it’s something I need to do. Or acceptance means that passive acquiescence of “Oh well, that’s how things are; I just need to accept it.” Again, something I do. Yet true acceptance isn’t what I do. It’s an openness, a willingness to simply be with what is without judgment: “Can I gently, kindly be with the immediacy of my experience without saying “yes” or “no” to it?” We can’t make ourselves accept or decide to accept. “It’s a perspective of just being with what is unfolding.”

She also acknowledges that “What’s hard is how do I accept reality when reality sucks? This quality of acceptance is not a condoning, but a finding that inner sense of tranquility when we face a reality that is distortion of Being. We can respond, but not react.” All that is hard for the ordinary mind to get around. Yet somehow without me doing anything, I’ve absorbed a sense of it. Just being with this without reacting.

Reality of this cancer in my friend sucks. I’m just being with that. But it’s not all of Reality. I want to write more about this in my next post when I review a book that is a companion to the book I reviewed on The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. This book is The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey which recounts what happened on the other end of Harold’s pilgrimage as she awaits his arrival in a hospice hospital, dying of cancer. Stay tuned. It’s also worth a read.

It’s good to get back to writing on my blog. And in these cold dry winter days in Alaska, I don’t have to worry that my computer will refuse to turn on due to humidity or the salt air!