Ash Wednesday/A Return.

Why are we here, anyway? Isn’t that the big question? Isn’t that what we’re constantly trying to find signifiers for, taking deep breaths and reaching out for answers? What are you trying to teach me today, Lord?

I disappeared for six months; for good reason, if any such thing exists for a writer, I suppose.

In the fall, I was diagnosed with Charcot’s, a relatively rare disease associated with diabetes, in which the harder tissues of a limb start to collapse in on themselves. Sometimes it’s stoppable via plates and screws; sometimes, infection sets in and eats the host alive. I got very unlucky with my particular course of the disease, and lost my left ankle and foot on January 10, my 35th birthday.

There’s a lot more to talk about on this subject; for Lent, I’m taking on finding new and positive ways to talk about this and help others fight this disease and the particular qualities of awfulness I found myself with. We can’t ever really slay one another’s beasts, but we can sure as Hell re-forge the swords we’ve used and toss them between each other as we fight. So that’s what I’m going to do.

Ash Wednesday is a dear day of the year for me. In 2014, it became my favorite professional day, as I got to see the man I work for, the Bishop of New Jersey, go out to the Trenton Transit Center in the morning and offer the imposition of ashes to commuters as they headed to work. It was one of those days that sticks to the impossible-to-clean parts of your brain; Chip Stokes was in his element, in his purple cassock, engaging people from all walks in conversation, offering ashes and blessings. Conversations were had with people who were curious or had walked away from the church at a prior point; I watched my bishop genially educated a trio of young men on their way to school who wanted to know more about this ritual and sacrament. I watched, and I learned, and I felt the meaning of the day.

Or so I thought.

We have these “before and after” experiences that change us. I think my limb loss counts. Before 2015, Ash Wednesday was a day of proclaiming faith as Lent begins, a reminder of what and who we’re committed to as disciples of Jesus Christ. On the other side of two terrifying trips to the edge of death, the heady reminder that we come from dust and return to it makes today a much more sobering experience.

But the other side of that is that God desires us to be here, as we desire Him; you can’t kill us. We’re eternal, even as parts of ourselves, the corporeal parts, fall away, out of sync with one another in their perfect imperfections. I’ve never felt so certain that my youth is over; I’ve never been less scared of death. And that’s the meaning of this day.

It’s not quite a proclamation of faith to me as it once was; Ash Wednesday is a demonstration that we’re here as material beings for only a short while, and we have a mission ahead of us. Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed, and we have work to do and kindnesses to share.

And for the next forty days, I’m working hard to put compassion out, on blast. That’s the goal. Lent this year is about what we take on instead of give up.

I’ll be writing every day. I hope you’ll join me in reflection, in prayer, in sharing.

To be continued.

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