I have a cold and I'm tired because I've been staying up a little too late and all I have in my stomach is a granola bar and a cup of coffee. I'm sitting in my Wednesday literature class, it's about 10 pm or so and we're nearing the end of class, and I'm staring at the Lu Hsun's essay "This Too Is Life" trying to think of something to say when the professor calls on me. Why she doesn't call on one of the four or five other people in the classroom who also haven't said a word during the entire class, I don't know. Why she chooses this essay, which I'm pretty certain even she doesn't completely get, I'm not sure. But there it is. "What does 'this too is life' mean'?"
"Eating melons," I say, stupidly. The essay is not, I should mention, about eating melons. Not really. I proceed to make myself sound like an inarticulate idiot and then climb under the table and hide for the next half hour. At home I seriously question my intelligence. I wonder if all analysis of literature is really bullshit. I try to understand what the essay is really about and then imagine explaining it to the professor, proving that I am not completely stupid.
What I came up with is this: I am not a genius, but I am not dumb, but if I am nervous, tired, and/or unprepared, I sure sound dumb. The analysis of literature is at least 75% bullshit. And Lu Husn's essay is about wholeness. "The man who strips off the branches and the leaves will never get blossoms and fruit." Eating a melon is life, just as dying is life. They are important not because they are metaphors or because they teach us something about ourselves, but because they are a part of a whole life, and the entire life is meaningful. They are inextricably bound together: life and death, the transcendent and the mundane.
Earlier on Wednesday I spent a half hour standing in the middle of Union Square with a small ceramic bowl of ashes in my frozen hands, with the Sacred Harp Singers singing A Capella songs behind me, ancient songs that were like rough cut, perfectly designed furniture, rugged and harmonious and attractive. I and several other members of the St. Lydia's community stood on the stone slabs of the square pressing ashes to the foreheads of those who came forward. "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return."
Ash Wednesday is one of the difficult days in the church calendar that confronts you with your death and all the big questions that religion raises. Death, it reminds us, is part of life. Like all your limitations and shortcomings and ridiculous fears, it's better to look at death straight on.
While I have hope that this life, and this universe, are larger than what I can take in with my senses, I'm not sure I believe in an afterlife. Not one that's anything like this life. My personality, my feelings, my sense of humor, all the things I associate with myself are so bound up with my physical self, my whole body, that I can't conceive that I'll be recognizable to myself or anyone else if there is a life in heaven after this one. Maybe we all become part of the universe or our souls are joined with God or whatever, but I'm still a little sad about all the things that I'm going to lose.
Those ashes on my forehead make me take all this seriously: my finiteness, my smallness and the shortness of this life. It reminds me also of the love and community and grace that I need in the face of those facts. Maybe I need to live my life a little differently, bring a new immediacy to my actions and interactions. Maybe I need to prepare a little better for class.