I am working towards a very intimate relationship with dust, vumbi. I walk a lot, most people do, sure there’s other transportation but my momma already paid for my legs. I am learning how to put my head down when a car passes to minimize inhaling the small particles, I am learning to walk quickly past the burning trash piles, and I know what color to expect when I sneeze. Dust cannot be avoided. Dust hides in the creases of my jeans, it sticks to the fibers of my hair (little of it that there is), and it never leaves the undersides of my fingernails. Even as I sit here in the office, the open doors look out onto a dusty red street and I hope the wind blows away from me, or I will have to sweep all the dust out of the office again, which I have done once already this morning. When I return to my home after a day of walking, my feet are stained a reddish brown, and real scrubbing must occur to remove the dust. Being a person of great visible difference from the majority of my colleagues and friends here, I receive well-meaning attention both for the visible collection of dust on my body and for the lack of skin care products appropriate for maintaining my skin. There is a greater occurrence of acne on my face and arms because of the dust, which people are very willing to notice and worry about (I would much rather pretend it wasn’t there at all). And while we all possess the same insides, Vaseline does much less good for my outsides than most others here who use it as lotion, hair oil, lip balm, and probably instead of Tylenol.
On Ash Wednesday we wait in line to receive a glob of dirt on our faces. It is special dirt; it is ashes, usually from the Palm Sunday palms of the previous year. It is dirt that is particularly black, it is very fine, it smudges well, but not so well that it falls onto carefully pressed white collared shirts or dry-clean only dresses. Ashes are clean dirt. Ashes are a way for us, at least for a day, to wear on the outside a part of our faith that is very difficult to admit. It represents the part where we mess up. It is when we get to talk about the fact that as humans we think we know. So we act. And only after acting do we realize that we did not know, that we were wrong, or that we knew but did it anyway. Ashes remind us that bodies are just bodies when the life is gone. And that a Black teen murdered by a cop becomes the same earth as the body of an old woman who died peacefully in her bed, as the body of a victim of a school shooting, as the body of a soldier shipped home in a casket. We wear ashes to remember and learn. We remember how we asked, “what were you wearing?” because that was easier than admitting that person whom we respect is hurting people. We learn that they kept hurting people because we refused to listen. We learn that even in repenting, and knowing we are forgiven, time does not reverse. A life that leaves a body does not return, spoken words cannot be unspoken, a country will have always been colonized. We remember that it is not God’s job to fix our mistakes.
We pour all of our guilt, all of our icky feelings and regrets into the fire that burns the ashes just as we dumped colorful sugar on braided cinnamon bread the day before. By submerging these feelings in the cleansing flames, and wearing the remainder of them, the ashes, on our foreheads, we are finally able to say the things in our hearts. We can say “yes, I did that thing, I didn’t even know I was doing it.” The miracle of Ash Wednesday is the fire, the purging of the good and the bad- for we should neither rest on our laurels nor wallow in guilt of past wrongs. The ashes are a covenant with God. God promises reconciliation of the past and of our mistakes to come, we must only press on. We must press on even though we only hear anger or fear or hurt in the people whom we may hope for reconciliation; but our responsibility is to each other, our reconciliation is with God.
While Ash Wednesday is one day and Lent is one season to make these reflections, we must wear the dust, the vumbi, every day. Lent is the start, the training wheels. The structure of a church service and a resolution to be mindful each day are our helmet and kneepads. For the road is rocky. We fall, we remember when we fell before, and we will fall again. The question is will we get back on the bike. The road is dusty. The dust settles in the creases of our jeans, it sticks to the fibers of our hair, it clings to the undersides of our fingernails; it takes real scrubbing to remove all of it. Will we go outside anyway? In a world where there may not be the right lotion or the right shampoo to be fully cleansed, will we accept the dust anyway?
Wear your dust with pride today, then wash it off and prepare for the dust tomorrow, there will be dust tomorrow.