"There's beauty in this world."
Two small scraps of paper weigh heavy in each pocket. One barely legible, scribbled in a hasty scrawl: I am but dust. The other bold, clear, strong—a canny invitation: The world was made for me.
My imagination turns over the old Hassidic proverb, the implications of each scrap twisting provocatively at the edges of my mind. The first, our own finiteness, is true; indisputable. The beauty of it hit me square in the chest one year in the sacredness of a sanctuary where my friend Tracey taught me to dampen my thumb in a bowl laden with ashes and make the sign of the cross on a person’s forehead. Each and every forehead.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.
For thirty minutes I said it, over and over again, as I stared into the dark and innocent eyes of a child; as I brushed my thumb across the oily pimples of a teenager; as I gently pressed the soft, dented wrinkles of an elderly woman; as I crossed the dark skin of a man in a narrow suit and tie and admired the flowing, unkempt curls of a young woman stooped forward in slouchy Australian boots. I crossed and I kneeled and I hugged and I blessed, recognizing each moment—diverse, unique, personal, communal—for the gift of redemption it was, as the tears streamed openly and unashamedly down my face.
There’s beauty in dust.
The world was made for me.
The second is false. In fact, perhaps no more untrue and misleading statement has ever been made. The world was not made for me, neither for me individually nor for us collectively. The world was created by a flawless artist, a soulful creator, a stainless king, a triune spirit living in the perfect perichoresis of both genesis and eternity, who one day breathed life into this world, said it was not good until it was very good and then allowed it to flourish—and implode—time and time again, all as part of a long and twisted and redeeming love story. The world was not made for me, but I for it. Which is to say I for him.
There’s beauty in this world.
How to embrace the tension, the endless possibilities of who we long to become ensconced between dust and eternity while still experiencing the beauty of both—before the nimble swing of the pendulum relentlessly threatens to knock us to the edges of the earth?
Now that really is the question we’ve all been asking since the first whispered breath.
* * *
It’s a cold December afternoon. I am sitting in one of my favorite coffee shops, next to the train station, next to the bay window encased in honey-stained oak that leaves a quaint view of the winter’s first snowfall. It’s been more than a year since the Stirring. I now have a laptop that, for the first time, I can call my own, a refurbished hunk passed on by my friend Andy, a business owner who was updating his company’s stock. (“We have tons of them we don’t use” he’d said.) So I’d started sitting in lots of coffee shops, an at-home mom trying to find her way, my kids now safely tucked away in school for most of my day.
Although I can see the bricked shops that line the other side of the street, the sill, resting slightly higher than my right shoulder, cuts the buildings in a horizontal midline. The snow is falling lazily as it makes its way to the ground, but every now and then its path is redirected by a microburst of wind. The branches of an evergreen wreath gently tap the glass in rhythm with the breeze. The back of a parking meter is slicked wet and black, causing the snow to stick and then hang, resembling a strip of Santa’s beard, nature’s way of not being outdone by the velvet of any crimson bow.
For a while, I can’t take my eyes off a red string that’s gotten itself hopelessly tangled in the prickly branches of the tree across the street, perhaps a string to a child’s lost balloon. I glance at an advertisement for a new meatball pesto flatbread and wrinkle my nose at the thought of eating it with my coffee.
There are three parking spots within my view: the one in the front and back, both occupied by oversized, black SUVs, are stagnate, but the one in the middle has had a revolving array of occupants, and I find myself curious about who these people are. Where they might be going on such a cold winter day, what life they may have waiting for them after they pull out of the spot. A business executive with a demanding job and a boss he hates, a mom trying to squeeze in a few more errands before she picks up the kids from school, an exasperated caretaker with an elderly parent waiting for a prescription, a carpenter fixing the store’s leaky plumbing, a woman who’s so bored with her own life that she’s hoping another swipe of the credit card might fill the emptiness lingering in her soul.
For a long time the spot remains empty. A white pickup truck passes slowly, the words Gourmet’s Choice centered on the passenger side door. A gold suburban breaks momentarily but then moves on, having decided that eking out a parallel park might be more than he can handle. Maybe all those passing by decide the space is too tight, too hard to squeeze into. Maybe cars filled with people who feel like that string caught in the tree, too tangled to get loose.
I wonder if they like their life. I wonder if they are living the life they thought they’d be.
—Taken from chapter one, ”Ashes,” and chapter five, “Be When I Grow Up”