To remember that we are ashes, and to ashes we will return, is a call back to our human life. It seems a little odd to be called back to the only kind of life we can have– that is, a human one– but the Ash Wednesday reminder addresses a beautiful (and sometimes very dangerous) silliness that is part of human nature: our tendency to forget that we’re not the center of the universe; to forget that we’re not gods; to forget that our time on earth is but a breath.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Remembering in this way sounds, initially, like a death sentence. What it is, really, is a life sentence. Remembering that we are dust opens the door into fully inhabiting the lives we’ve been given, into living more completely into this place and time. We don’t have forever.
And so I offer Billy Collins’ poem “Nightclub.” I like it for Ash Wednesday because, like Ash Wednesday, it is a poem that reminds us who we are , and invites us to embrace our human foolishness as the doorway into a fully human kind of beauty.
You are so beautiful and I am a fool
to be in love with you
is a theme that keeps coming up
in songs and poems.
There seems to be no room for variation.
I have never heard anyone sing
I am so beautiful
and you are a fool to be in love with me,
even though this notion has surely
crossed the minds of women and men alike.
You are so beautiful, too bad you are a fool
is another one you don’t hear.
Or, you are a fool to consider me beautiful.
That one you will never hear, guaranteed.
For no particular reason this afternoon
I am listening to Johnny Hartman
whose dark voice can curl around
the concepts on love, beauty, and foolishness
like no one else’s can.
It feels like smoke curling up from a cigarette
someone left burning on a baby grand piano
around three o’clock in the morning;
smoke that billows up into the bright lights
while out there in the darkness
some of the beautiful fools have gathered
around little tables to listen,
some with their eyes closed,
others leaning forward into the music
as if it were holding them up,
or twirling the loose ice in a glass,
slipping by degrees into a rhythmic dream.
Yes, there is all this foolish beauty,
borne beyond midnight,
that has no desire to go home,
especially now when everyone in the room
is watching the large man with the tenor sax
that hangs from his neck like a golden fish.
He moves forward to the edge of the stage
and hands the instrument down to me
and nods that I should play.
So I put the mouthpiece to my lips
and blow into it with all my living breath.
We are all so foolish,
my long bebop solo begins by saying,
so damn foolish
we have become beautiful without even knowing it.