Pretty ashes

Maybe our mortality can be beautiful, writes Andrew Taylor-Troutman.

Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash

Last year, I came home rather late from the Ash Wednesday service and tiptoed into my four-year-old daughter’s room to say goodnight. She saw my forehead in the glow of her nightlight and asked about it. After I told her, she snuggled further into her covers and sighed, “Your ashes look pretty.”

I pay attention to what my daughter thinks about “pretty.” It’s a complicated notion. She has a couple of Disney princess dresses. She also loves to make mud soup in the backyard. She is proud of her artwork and gives her creations to classmates, teachers, neighbors and family members. She might fill a page with rainbows and hearts — “pretty things.” She might draw a fierce dinosaur. Roar!

I’m happy if she wants to feel pretty. I don’t want to put her into a box or fit her into any stilted idea about what a little girl is “supposed” to be.

I also want to learn from my daughter. How are ashes pretty? Her comment about my ashes reminded me of Deb Talan’s song, “Ashes on Your Eyes,” which includes the lyric, “Baby, the ashes just look pretty on your eyes.” The song evokes the mythology of a phoenix rising from the ashes, a symbol of rebirth. This strikes me as an Easter image.

On Ash Wednesday, part of me wants to resist this — not to deny resurrection hope, but to wait for it. Easter Sunday is coming. On this day in February, let’s dwell on our mortality. We all die. It’s actually one of the most honest and interesting things about us. Even those who seem put together are slowly falling apart. No matter what we do or earn or possess, we will lose all of our pretty things. There’s a special freedom in that — not to live without consequences, but to embrace opportunities to be unique and wonderful, whatever that means to you. To be you. You will die someday. Today, you have your life.

This year, I plan for my daughter to attend the service and receive her own ashes. Knowing her, she will have an opinion about them!

Years ago, before the pandemic, her mom carried her to the front of the church. I knew they were approaching, but I was so focused on each worshipper ahead of them in line that I was caught off-guard until, suddenly, my baby was before me. I swallowed the lump in my throat and began to smear ashes on the same soft forehead that I was used to kissing.

But my daughter squirmed! My sooty finger poked her eye! I recoiled, fearing that I’d hurt her. She blinked rapidly, then froze for a beat. Was she about to cry? Finally, she looked right at me and … grinned. I let out a sigh of relief and — surprise, surprise — started to chuckle right in the middle of Ash Wednesday.

You are made of dust and to dust you shall return. There is a special freedom in that. Baby, the ashes just look pretty on your eyes.