a combination Slice of Life & Spiritual Journey offering

I grew up hating ashes.

They were a part of my everyday life.

My parents were smokers. Salem menthols. When their friends came over or when some of my mother’s family gathered at our house, smoke hung in the air, thicker than fog, like some conjured ghost constantly materializing, encompassing, lingering…

Sometimes I was given the chore of cleaning out the ashtrays. A debasing job. Dirty. Ashes are pervasive. Everywhere and never really gone, no matter how hard you try. Even now, remembering, the stench is my nose, the metallic taste on my tongue…

It would be a long time before I’d learn the seeming incongruity of ashes as the main ingredient of an age-old cleansing agent. Lye. Which was also used to make hominy and that Southern staple, grits. In spite of my heritage, I never learned to like them.

It took me longer still to understand ashes as symbolizing something holy. Ash Wednesday and Lent weren’t part of my Protestant church or family tradition.

I got the humility part early on, however. From stories. First there was Cinderella, named for the soot that clung to her skin and her clothes from ashes that she (too!) was relegated to cleaning. Ashes are pervasive… then the Bible. Job, stricken with boils, scraping himself with broken pottery, sitting in the ashes. The repentant king of Nineveh mandating sackcloth and ashes after revival preached by the pouting prophet Jonah. Eventually, the vivid image of Tamar placing ashes on her head, sobbing, in utter humiliation and grief after the assault by her half-brother. Priests were commanded to change out of their sacred garments before disposing of burnt offering ashes.

Ashes are pervasive…

At fifteen I stood outside watching flakes falling from the sky in late May. Not snow at that time of year, in the southeastern United States. Ash. From the eruption of Mount St. Helen’s on the other side of the country. The volcano’s side exploded with such force that plumes of ash rocketed skyward for miles. The snowlike flakes settled across the nation and parts of Canada. I caught these curiosities in my hands. They didn’t melt. They looked to me like flakes of human skin.

I thought of war.

I think of war now. As I write, scenes are all over the TV. Bombs. Destruction. Death. What once was, now in ashes.

I think of the gorgeous churches of Kyiv.

I think of the dead.

My second son is a recently-certified crematory operator. Traditional burials are steadily giving way to cremations now. One day I went with him and watched while he placed someone’s ashes in an engraved box urn. These ashes are different from other kinds. Pale powder, fine as talcum. One of the most reverent acts I’ve ever witnessed, my boy tenderly packing that human dust.

The ancient Romans had a saying, Memento mori. Remember that you die. It is the same idea behind Ash Wednesday rites: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return, echoing God’s words to Adam in Genesis 3:19, after the Fall.

I’ve never had a cross of ashes placed on my head by a priest, but I understand the call to repentance. It echoes deep in my bones. I know the desperate desire for holiness in the face of raging unholiness. The need for wholeness. I believe in repent and believe. I do. I repent. I believe.

I believe there’s an eventual reckoning.

Ashes are pervasive.

Volcano ash man. @Doug88888.CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.


with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Story Challenge every day in the month of March. This is my sixth year participating.

Thanks also to my Spiritual Journey writing friends and to Ruth Hersey in Paraguay for hosting on the first Thursday in March. Ruth chose the theme “ashes” in connection with Ash Wednesday (which is why my post is going up a day early this month).

28 thoughts on “Ashes

  1. A powerful read on this Ash Wednesday. I appreciated your reflection on ashes, from your childhood to today’s current situation in the Ukraine. Repent and believe- ideas that I’ll think of more today.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Terje.That you describe my post as “unexpected” makes me happy – and I have to tell you that you have been in my thoughts lately, with all going on in your part of the world.


  2. What a compelling read today – the ashes that pervade our lives. I remember the ashes of the volcano, too – how they hung in the air for days. I was in South Carolina when that happened. One year I visited a church for an Ash Wednesday service and got the ashes on my forehead. What a great day as we begin the Lent season to remind us of the importance of ashes – how we began, and how we shall finish this life.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love how that one word floated through so many moments, stories, and ideas. I feel like the humility of repentance is something we all need these days. We need to collect and savor those ashes…and maybe let them cleanse our planet…which feels a bit soiled these days.

    Liked by 1 person

    • More humility and repentance needed to cleanse our planet…oh yes, let ashes stand for this. Thanl you for your words. These images swirled as I reflected on the word “ashes” and quickly felt important to write, and to share, on this day.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Fran, your slice on ashes is so powerful. It is an important day in the Catholic religion. You have reminded me of this-“Remember You are Dust and to Dust You Shall Return”. I do so want to go into a church and receive ashes but the local churches are full of people and we are being so cautious. We may watch the Catholic Mass on TV today like we always do each Sunday. There is something mystical and divine about being in a church, hearing a sermon, and feeling the presence of the Lord. Ashes are only a reminder of the gift of repentance and a need for Whole-ness. I am reminded of mortality today-the world is in mourning. Floods of tears have been shed for several years and now more are on the horizon. Sometimes, I wonder if natural disasters, civil unrest, climate change, and war are signs that mankind needs to heed. Ashes are pervasive and repentance a must. May your day be filled with blessings. Thank you for always writing from your heart.

    Liked by 2 people

    • So much mourning, yes. So much strife. Thank you for your deeply reflective response and for pointing out that ashes are “only a reminder of the gift of repentance.” Beautifully said, Carol. And so needed.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This is so deeply poignant and full of your memories, thoughts, sparks of insight and the truth. So much is wrong with this world, man’s destruction is such an awful act. I remember watching bushfires burning out of control on an Ash Wednesday several decades ago, holding our second son in my arms with the air thick with ash. Many bushfires are wilful acts of destruction caused by a human hand. And yes, there is definitely a reckoning!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Man’s destruction…horrifying. So much brokenness. The more recent Australian fires return to my mind often – I grieved when that was all unfolding; so much loss. I read about Australian animals when I was a small child (in fact, my grandmother read of them to me, before I could read) and so this tragedy struck me deeply. That image of you holding your son when the bushfires were out of control on that Ash Wednesday long ago – that is now indelibly etched in my brain. On a lighter note – so happy to be slicing alongside you again!!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Your essay is one I will savor and save. In a few hours I’ll attend Mass and after, have that cross of ashes placed on my forehead. When I do, I’ll be thinking of the many forms and meanings of ashes that you recounted in this well-written piece. Thank you for sharing and do try to send this out and find a home for it.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Fran, I haven’t written my post and you have given me much to think about, from cigarette ash to war. The idea of rubbing the ashes on the forehead is bothersome to some (my husband, for one), but I find it comforting in a discomforting way.


  8. I was brought up with Ash Wednesday smudges on my forehead, as a cradle Catholic. It was a profound way to enter into the Lenten season, and I entertained the thought of returning to that service this year…but did not. I have the same scent memory of cigarette smoke at home–my father smoked quite a bit, and I didn’t realize how pervasive the odor and yellowness was until I went off to a smoke-free college dorm. And Pompeii…strange to think that I used to run around those ruins, in my youth. I remember staring at the shells of people and animals, almost feeling their terror as their lungs filled with ashy soot and mud…Thanks for stirring up some powerful memories.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Chris – I noticed, too, as a child how the cigarette smell sticks to clothes and hair. When I spent summer vacations with my grandparents, I’d open the suitcase and the smell of smoke was overpowering. When I went back home and opened the suitcase, the clean, sweet fragrance of Grandma’s house poured forth, filling me with deep longing. So many layers to this. I cannot even imagine running around the ruins of Pompeii – the very idea fills me with awe. The terror surely remains in that place, in the air itself. Thank you for this.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. This is beautiful, Fran. As always. This topic has been difficult for me, but I hope to find some way to express it soon. Thank you for reminding me of Job, Tamar, and the king of Ninevah. Yes, we all have a history with ashes.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. The description of your son performing “one of the most reverent acts you’ve ever witnessed” is overwhelming. It is a circle of life, and you, watching your grown son, in a moving act of service is beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ruth: There’s so much more to tell about my son’s story and the wonder of his finding purpose and peace in what he does now. He is our musician – always was, from the time he was a baby. He’s hears and lives and has his being in those ‘unforced rhythms of grace.’ It needs to be written…


  11. Your picture of Pompeii takes me back there. I was there in Feb. 2019. We never dreamed at the time how we would cherish that trip, taken with three friends. I didn’t even think of those ashes when I was pulling up memories. Love the ashes connections you made to Biblical stories. Your son’s reverent handling of the ashes, what an image. Thanks for writing and sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I cannot imagine visiting Pompeii, Ramona – it must have been a profound experience. The photos – like this one – are haunting. They speak to the temporary nature of life in this world as well as to the scope of that catastrophe. This person seemed to exemplify ashes and repentance to me – ashes to ashes, dust to dust – this poor soul knew it was imminent. Thank you always for your gracious, grace-filled words.


  12. Thank you for these reflections! What important and holy work your son does – how beautiful to hear of this. I am struck by these words, “Ashes are pervasive. Everywhere and never really gone” – there are multiple meanings, I think. No matter how much joy around us, there are always ashes to consider. Beautiful post!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Fran, I am always mesmerized by your writing. This is beautiful. You have so many examples of ashes, and the feelings they conjure and symbolism of different kinds of ashes. Absolutely captivating.


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