We are Easter people living in a Good Friday world.
It is the ashes that come to mind first. I remember the weight of Father Boyle’s thumb pressed to my forehead making the sign of the cross there. I remember the gritty feel, like chalk, like dust, the charred leftover palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday fashioned into a cross on my tender young skin. From my seat in the pew I would watch, and I would wonder where those palms had been stored all year. I would wonder where they were burned and ground up and placed to wait for this line up of the faithful to receive on the forehead.
After Mass we would all be gathered somewhere, out to eat at the family diner across from the church, the chain restaurant down the street or maybe, if we were lucky, it was the fancy place with cloth napkins and padded chairs in Bridgetown. On the west side of Cincinnati, Ohio, in the 1970s we were all Catholics in those restaurants after Mass on Ash Wednesday. We sported the ashes on our heads, some smudged, some with edges clear and defined. We were marked and we were scattered. We were a field of ashes as we ate our fish sandwiches and sipped our vegetable soup. I would look around and make a Rorschach guessing game with myself — here I would see a cat stretching with paws wide, there a tree with branches raised, silhouetted against the sky.
It is the ashes I remember first, but I remember too the fish on Fridays for fasting and the little milk cartons we’d use to save up coins for some charity I cannot recall. We put our spare change in those cartons, which I presume were meant to represent the milk we’d help to buy for those less fortunate than ourselves. Some years I put the pennies and nickels in the milk carton, but I kept the dimes and the quarters for myself. I placed them in the bottom of my sock drawer under the black and blue rolled-up nylon socks I wore with my green plaid school uniform. I secured those dimes and quarters because I thought that perhaps we were some of the less fortunate that year. Maybe it was because my dad lost his job or because of the gas crisis or because there was this nagging voice whispering an echoed line from the short story by D. H. Lawrence I’d read in English class, “there must be more money!” I kept the quarters and dimes and thought little of it until now.
The season of Lent observed in some Christian traditions refers to the 40 days that lead up to Easter. It is a stripping down of the trappings of our modern lives. We are meant to move into a time of preparation and reflection. The three main elements that aid in this preparation are an increased focus on prayer along with the practices of fasting and alms-giving — or in other words, charity. Growing up Catholic, I remember the ashes because they were beautiful to me, visual and gritty. I remember the prayer because we spent more time at Mass and at services like the Stations of the Cross that tell the visceral story of Christ’s death. But the milk carton and the hidden dimes and quarters are what come to me around the charity part. I suppose it’s not surprising for a kid to fixate on the sacrificial approach to food or the time spent standing, sitting, and kneeling at Mass or morning prayers. But remembering that holding back of quarters and dimes bothers me now.
I have never read Barbara Johnson. I have only read her quote about being “Easter people.” I do not even know the original context, but I found the quote in an article I read by Anne Lamott in Salon Magazine years ago, and it stuck with me: “We are Easter people, living in a Good Friday world.” I forgot much of the article itself, but I carried the quote around with me, tucked under my skin and near to my heart. Though I did not fully comprehend what it meant to me, I knew that it was important, so I saved it. I was in my 30s then, only a few years married and not yet a mother. I kept the idea with me, there under my ribcage, and let it rub its edges into me while I walked around. “We are Easter people,” I would think to myself from time to time. “Whatever that means.”
* * *
Father Matthew Baker was killed in a car accident at the start of Lent this year. I had never met him, but a number of my friends and acquaintances had known him through his work as a priest in the Orthodox Church or from his writings or his reputation. He was married and had six young children. The picture that came up when my friends posted the news showed this vibrant young man with a shock of red hair and wiry beard, smiling as he held one child, surrounded by the rest of his family. There was a vibrance to him that seemed to jump from the photo. I clicked the link to see the fund that had been set up for his wife and children because a few of my friends had contributed. I saved it to view later when I had more time or energy and a little coin to spare. “It’s Lent,” I thought. “Perhaps this is my milk carton.”
The word charity originates in the Latin word carus, meaning dear. Over time, the word came to indicate a particular sort of Christian love or care. The word achieved the “Christian love” designation to help to differentiate this “care” from a more romantic notion. And the donation page for Father Matthew struck me as a strong example of this care. The concern, support, and nurturing was evident, and watching the number rise with each screen refresh reminded me again of the loose change in a milk carton. I would vacillate between the immense feeling of loss for this man I did not know and astonishment at the outpouring of care that came in the wake of that loss. It was beautiful — beauty from ashes, life giving, life saving.
* * *
I stayed off campus one summer during college, subletting a friend’s rented house and working the early shift at the Dayton Daily News customer service line. I had to be at work at 6:00 a.m. four days a week. I was smoking about a half a pack a day then, trying to quit — always trying to quit — not so much for my health as for my dwindling bank account. In any case, I had a morning ritual of waking up and having a smoke while still half asleep.
This particular summer was stiflingly hot, so my roommates and I took to sleeping on the floors rather than in the beds. My room had a brown shag carpet that did not stink overly much. Every morning of the week of the worst heat that summer I had to wake up at 5:00 a.m. so that I could catch my bus at 5:28 to make my daily shift of customer complaints and subscription cancellations. The last morning of that workweek I propped myself up on my elbows when the alarm rang and I reached for my pack of Marlboro Light 100s and lit up. It had been a long and hot week, so it comes as no surprise that I quickly drifted back off, my hand resting palm down on the shag carpeting, still pinching the long cigarette between my index and middle fingers.
It was the heat that woke me not long after. The cigarette had burned down slowly there in my hand until it reached the place where it met my fingers. The heat from the cigarette bore down on the tops of those fingers and woke me up as though I was being gently tapped awake. I saw the column of ash stacked perfectly before my face, balanced and beautiful. The moment I moved it collapsed onto to the top of my hand. That cigarette could have taken my life if it had slipped from my fingers while I slept, but all I could think in that moment, as I uttered a prayer of thanks to God, was that this column of ash probably saved me.
* * *
When I finally made it back to the donation page for Father Matthew, the total amount given had jumped significantly. They’d reached their modest initial goal and I saw that the numbers were increasing while I watched. The new goal of $5,000 was also met quickly, within hours. I became obsessed with the campaign. I checked back again later and saw yet another new goal of $150,000. The numbers were climbing, and I felt this strange surge of emotion for these people whom I never had the occasion to consider before now. I refreshed the screen over and over each time I opened my computer. I kept it running in the background of my browser and every few moments, I would go back and watch the numbers continue to climb. I felt connected to this family and to this story and the forward motion of the numbers rising felt helpful and hopeful and valuable. I felt I had a stake in this care unfolding even as I sat in the relative calm of my own home, in a comfy chair, hidden behind a computer screen that reflected my face when the light was right.
I find I am too often caught up in the cruelty of people, the burning of things into ash and dust. It’s probably because I watch too much television or see too many examples of man’s inhumanity to man on the Internet. I am inclined to think the worst of the folks who mill around me in this burgeoning mass of humanity and media and machinery. This rising of beauty from ashes was mesmerizing. Nothing could break the spell of watching the support pour in, the nurturing made evident, the care of the contributions as the numbers climbed. Over the following days, I watched the pledges on the page — $10, $25, $100 — and found that I was overcome with a new feeling, a sordid feeling, a dark and gritty feeling. I found in that moment that I was suspicious and felt almost envious of the care, the deep support, the viral nature of the thing and yet as I refreshed the page again and again I was reminded too of the depth of this loss, the weight of this tragedy for so many, so far from me and still, somehow, so dear.
“We are Easter people,” says a voice from the whisper chambers of my heart, from deep in the hollows where I tucked those words years ago, under the ribcage where I placed them for safekeeping, for this very moment it seems. In the face of this odd strain of envy and suspicion, discontent to wallow in the soot of the ashes, I hear it again — we are Easter people, and here is a Good Friday unfolding and scrolling before my eyes. Another $50, $75, $200 from strangers, many anonymous, some with comments of consolation, words acknowledging that this is, indeed, the very least we can offer those who are left to struggle. Beauty from ashes happens even as I am stuffing my dimes and quarters deep into that sock drawer. And I realize how little I’ve learned since those days of Catholic school and Stations of the Cross and ashes on the forehead and milk cartons for the less fortunate.
I sit for a moment in the reality of my own fortune, my own comfort, my own deep-seated needs and self centered nature. I remember the ashes, the feel of them on my forehead, gritty under Father Boyle’s thumb as he pressed them into the sign of the cross and I breathe then, one deep breath, one heavy sigh that releases shame of that milk carton moment, that column of ash moment, that slow march toward Good Friday. Carus, we are Easter people.
Angela Doll Carlson is a poet and essayist whose work has appeared most recently in the Burnside Writer's Collective, the Saint Katherine Review, Rock & Sling, Image’s Good Letters blog, the Ruminate Magazine blog, Elephant Journal, and the Art House America Blog. Her book, Nearly Orthodox: On Being a Modern Woman in an Ancient Tradition from Ancient Faith Publishers is now available.
Angela currently lives in Chicago, IL, with her husband, David, and her 4 outrageously spirited yet remarkably likable children.