Tuesday, February 13, 2018

You Are Dust

          Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return," I will hear multiple times at all of the services I am planning to attend, while blackened thumbs smear across my forehead, and I already know that these thumbs will not be as gentle as I always pray they will be. In my typical manner, I will wash the ashes off quickly afterwards, in part so that I can go to the next service I have lined up, in part because Ash Wednesday often turns into an uncomfortable flaunting of one's adherence to Christian traditions, and in part because I must admit that having this visual reminder seems unnecessary to me when my bones are screaming my mortality into my ears every second of the day. With these three reasons combined, I like to think that Jesus understands when I scrub my forehead over a dorm room sink, tears flowing down my cheeks as I take a rare moment to feel the fragility in my body, no power of imagination necessary.

          Perhaps for some of us Ash Wednesday is not an abstract opportunity to reflect on our mortality, but rather a promise that the suffering that sinks deep into our bones has a home in our religious practices and traditions. Maybe for some people Ash Wednesday is a smack in the face from reality while for others it represents an empathic hug from a Church that tends to constrain pain.

          I have to skip one of my classes tomorrow in order to attend my home congregation's Ash Wednesday service. I considered composing an email to the professor, who would likely assume that I was just using a religious excuse to cut class. "I know Ash Wednesday is not very important to many people who identify as Christians," I imagined myself writing, "but it is a service that is fundamentally about dust, and I am particularly dusty these days." I have decided to spare him such a confusing email.

On a normal day: Me looking at volcanic rock
On Ash Wednesday: Me looking at future me

          Perhaps a constant sense of my own fragility and brokenness is, in some twisted way, a gift. Before you assume that I am finally construing my decay into something worth celebrating, please take a moment to recognize that not all gifts produce delight. I have been feeling like a heap of bones lately, tied up with a mind that is not quite strong enough to withstand my physical weariness and flesh that is failing me. Over the past couple of weeks I have had my fair share of moments crumpled up on the floor, piled under cold compresses and heating pads, wishing that everything would stop hurting. I feel like no more than my bones some days. No Amazon Prime shipments of tins of ashes are necessary for this sort of unwelcome perpetual awareness.

          A dear friend introduced me to a podcast this week, the title of which, "Can These Bones," is based off of Ezekiel 37. I love the podcast and would recommend it a thousand times over to all of you, but I must admit that I felt a bit left out during the discussion of the valley of the dry bones. Where is all of the biblical emphasis on swollen bones, with too much fluid? Today I found myself in a chapel that I am not even sure if I am technically allowed to be in during the day, staring at yellow walls and asking God to be with those of us with swollen bones, too. They can be just as dead as dry ones, I argued, as if my illness offered me the power to persuade the divine. Pain is not the antithesis of death, but rather one of its closest companions. 

          Still, I was drawn to Ezekiel 37 and relieved by its willingness to draw attention to our physical bodies. I hear so much about the soul in religious circles, and it is comforting to be reminded that God cares about my bones just as much, even if it sends me straight to tears roughly fifty percent of the time. I am really trying to hold it together these days. I am very much failing. I am grateful for the people who choose to be present when my bones collide with this earth and I am reminded of the cruelty of physical pain. I am especially grateful for religious people who choose to acknowledge my illness head-on, refusing to dance around it with biblical language and churchy terms. It is not an easy thing to do.

          My favorite part of Ash Wednesday is looking around and knowing that at the end of the day, everyone is just as fragile as I am, no matter how much more capable or whole they seem. We are all just decaying bones and flesh, although some of us are decaying at a faster rate than others. Whenever my doctors use the word "erosion" to describe the permanent damage arthritis has inflicted on my joints, the natural images invoked by the word strike me as absurd against the inappropriate backdrops of paper-white rooms full of metal objects and colorful toxins. "You are supposed to have valleys, but you have rivers," one of my first pediatric rheumatologists explained to me regarding the swelling in my elbows. Both the Nile and the Grand Canyon seemed like good options to me, but apparently the dry bone was the desirable option. Ezekiel and my rheumatologist seem to agree that God apparently has big plans for seemingly hopeless dry bones, but swollen bones? Not so much. Just kidding. Maybe. 

          Every morning, every night, and every two weeks, when I swallow and inject my immunosuppressant medications, I poison myself in the hopes of preserving bones that are trying to turn to ashes. Trying to slow down this process seems so unnatural, but it also seems like the right thing to do. Maybe the reason I do so in tears is so that if I end up being wrong about all of the medical decisions I make God will be certain that I was always uncertain, and will forgive me for jabbing my body and allowing it to be jabbed in such an invasive manner. Maybe I permit myself uncertainty regarding the smaller decisions because I know what is certain: that I am dust, and that my joints are becoming dust a bit too rapidly.

          I do not need to be reminded that I am dust tomorrow. I will choose to be reminded anyway. I will choose to sink into a pain that I so often run away from, to run straight into a suffering that everyone tells me to push into the far corners of my universe. I will celebrate a fleeting moment of understanding in which the Church chooses to accept how broken my body is without the threat of healing prayers or positive thinking or happy vibes. I will look around and remember that no matter how lonely it feels to be decaying, everyone is doing so. "You are dust." These, my friends, are freeing words.

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