Ashes to Alvin

Published February 27, 1997 6:26PM (EST)

ash Wednesday came early this year. It is supposed to be about
preparation, about consecration, about moving towards Easter, towards
resurrection and renewal. It's a time when we have the chance to break
through some of the craziness of our lives, through the distractions that
keep us from living the basic Easter message of love, of living in wonder
rather than doubt. For some people, it is about fasting, to symbolize
solidarity with the hungry, and the hunger for God. (I do not think it
will surprise you to learn that I am not heavily into fasting; that even
the thought of missing a meal sends me running off in search of Ben and
Jerry's New York Super Chunk Fudge.)

As far as I know, there is nothing in Scripture or tradition setting
it aside as a day on which to attack one's child, and then flagellate
oneself while the child climbs a tree and shouts down that he can't decide
whether to hang himself or jump, even after it is pointed out that he is
only five feet from the ground. But I guess every family celebrates the
day in its own unique way.

Let me start over. You see, I tried at breakfast to get my son Sam
interested in Ash Wednesday. I made him cocoa and gave a little talk on
what it all means. Ashes, I explained, are a symbol of the finality of
death, a sign that this is all a passing show. Like the theologian said,
death is God's No to all human presumption. We are all the characters in
"Waiting for Godot," where the only visible redemption is the eventual
appearance of four or five new leaves on the pitiful tree in Act II. In
the face of that, how can we cooperate with grace? How can we open
ourselves up to it? How can we make room for anything new? How can we
till the field? And so people mark themselves with ashes to show that they
put their trust in the alchemy God can work with those ashes -- jogging us
awake, moving us towards greater attention and openness and love.

Sam listened to my little talk, but then, when he thought I wasn't
looking, he turned on the TV. I made him turn it off. I explained that we
were not watching cartoons that morning in honor of Ash Wednesday. I told
him he could draw if he wanted, or play with Legos. I got myself a cup of
coffee and started looking at a book of photographs that someone had sent.
One in particular caught my eye immediately. It was of a large Mennonite
family, shot in black and white, of a husband and wife and their 15
children gathered around a highly polished oval table, their faces clearly,
eerily, reflected on the burnished wood. They looked surreal and serious;
you see in those long grave faces the echoes of the Last Supper. I wanted
to show the photograph to Sam. But abruptly -- hideously -- Alvin and the
Chipmunks were singing "Achey Breakey Heart" at the top of their lungs, in
their adenoidal demon-field way, on TV, which Sam had turned on again.

And I just lost my mind. I thought I might begin smashing things.
Including Sam. I shouted at the top of my lungs, and I used the word
"Fucking," as in "goddamn fucking TV that we're getting rid of," and I
grabbed him by his pipe-cleaner arm and jerked him in the direction of his
room, where he spent the next 10 minutes crying bitter tears.

It's so awful, attacking your child. It is the worst thing I know, to
shout loudly at this 50-pound being with his huge goggly brown eyes. It's
like buzzing Bambi with a cattle prod, or bitch-slapping E.T.

I did what all good parents do: calmed down enough to go apologize,
beg his forgiveness while simultaneously guilt-mongering him and expressing
a deep concern about his disappointing character. He said I was the
meanest person on earth next to Darth Vader. We talked. I chastised myself
silently while washing breakfast dishes, but then it was time for school
and I couldn't find him anywhere. And this was when I found him shouting
from the branches of our tree.

I dropped him off at school and felt terrible all day. Everywhere I
went I'd see businessmen and women marching purposefully by with holy ashes
on their foreheads. I knew I was no longer going to get
into heaven, and even if I did, it would be in a bad section, with the men
from NAMBLA and no decent snacks. I wasn't going to get to go to
church until that night, to get my own little ash tilak and the reminder
that I was forgiven. I thought about taking Sam out of school so that I
could apologize some more. But I knew just enough to keep my mitts off of
him. He is separating from me like mad recently and has made it clear that
I need to give him a little bit more room. I'm not even allowed to tell
him I love him these days. He is quite firm on this. One day recently he
said, "You tell me you love me all the time, and I don't want you to

"At all?" I said.

"I just want you to tell me that you like me."

I said I would really try. That night, when I was tucking him in, I
said, "Good night, honey. I really, really like you a lot."

There was silence in the dark. Then he said, "I like you too, mom."

So I didn't take him out of school. I went for several walks, and I
thought about ashes. I was sad, because I am a mean and awful person. I
got sadder. I got to thinking about the ashes of the dead.

My father's ashes have poured through my fingers like sand. So have
my friend Pammy's. I poured their ashes off sailboats out on San Francisco
Bay. I poured my father's into the water near Angel Island, late at night,
but I was very drunk. And I tossed a handful of Pammy's into the water way
out past the Golden Gate Bridge during the day, with her husband and
family, when I had been sober several years. And the second time I was
able to see, because it was daytime and I was sober, the deeply
contradictory nature of ashes, that they are both so heavy and so light.

They're impossible to let go of entirely. They stick to things, to
your fingers, your sweater. I licked my friend's ashes off my hand, to
taste them, to taste her, to taste what was left after all that was clean
and alive had been consumed, burnt away. They tasted metallic, and they
blew every which way. We tried to strew them off the side of a boat,
romantically, with seals barking from the rocks on shore, under a true blue
sky, but they would not cooperate. They rarely will. It's frustrating if
you are hoping to have a happy ending, or at least a little closure, a
movie moment when you toss them into the air and they flutter and disperse.
But they don't. They cling, they haunt. They get in your hair, in
your eyes, in your clothes.

When I opened the box of my father's ashes, I thought there'd be nice
soft ashy ashes, like the ones with which they anoint your forehead on Ash
Wednesday. But they're the grittiest of elements, like not very good
landscaping pebbles. Like they're made of bones or something.

But by the time I reached into the box of Pammy's ashes, I had Sam and
three years' sobriety. I was able to tolerate mystery. That's one of the
gifts kids give you. That, and the way they wedge open your heart. (Also,
they help you see that you are as mad as a hatter, capable of violence just
because Alvin and the Chipmunks are singing when you are trying to have a
nice realmy moment thinking about ashes.) By the time I held Pammy's ashes
in my hand, I almost liked that they made me so desperately sad, grounded
me in all the sadness and mysteriousness, because I could find a weird
comfort in that. There's a kind of sweetness and attention that you can
finally pay to the tiniest grains of life after you've run your hands
through the ashes of someone you loved. Pammy's ashes clung to us. I licked
them off my fingers. She was the most robust and luscious person I have
ever known.

Sam had a play date after school with a friend, and so I only saw him
for a few minutes before he went off before dinner with his Big Brother
Brian, as he does every Wednesday. I went to my church. The best part of
the service was that we sang old hymns a cappella. There were only 10 of
us, but one of the women was in a bad mood. I found this very scary. I
tried to jolly and self-will her into a better mood, but she wouldn't have
any of it.

I found this very discouraging at first, until I remembered
another woman at our church, very old, from the South, tiny and black, who
dressed in these ersatz Coco Chanel outfits, polyester sweater sets, dacron
pill-box hats. They must have come from Mervyns and Montgomery Ward,
because she didn't have any money. She was always cheerful until she
turned 80 and started going blind. She had a great deal of religious
faith and everyone assumed that she would adjust and find meaning in her
loss, meaning and acceptance and then joy; and we all wanted this because,
let's face it, it's so inspiring and such a relief when people bear up to
the unbearable. When you can box things up nicely and see that a tiny
miracle took place and that love once again turned out to be bigger than
fear and death and blindness. But this woman would have none of it. She
went into a deep depression, and eventually left the church. People kept
taking communion to her, but she wouldn't be in our community anymore. It
must have been too annoying for everyone to be secretly trying to
manipulate her into being a better sport about being blind than she was
capable of being. I always thought that was heroic of her, that it spoke
of such integrity to refuse to pretend that you're doing well just to help
other people deal with the reality of impossible loss.

And still on Ash Wednesday I sang, of faith and love, of repentance.
You know, old foot-wash Baptist me. We tore little cloth rags in half to
symbolize our repentance, our willingness to tear up the old pattern and
await the new; we dipped our own fingers in ash and daubed it on our
foreheads. I prayed for the stamina to bear mystery and stillness. I
prayed for Sam to be able to trust me, and for me to be able to trust me
again, too.

When I got home, Sam was already asleep. Brian had put him to bed. I
wanted to wake him up and tell him that it was OK that he wouldn't be who
I tried to get him to be; that it was OK that he didn't cooperate with me
all the time; that ashes don't, old people don't, why should little boys?
But I let him alone. He was in my bed when I woke up the next morning, way
over on the far left, flat and quiet as a shaft of light. I watched him
sleep. His mouth was open. He has recently, miraculously, grown two huge
front teeth, big and white as Chiclets. He was snoring, loudly for such a
small boy.

I thought again about that photo of the Mennonites. In the faces of the
15 children reflected on a very polished table, you can see the fragile
ferocity of their bond, and it looks like a big wind could come and
blow this field of people on the shiny polished table away. And the light
is so surreal that you feel that if the reflections were to go, there would
be no more children. More than anything else on earth, I do not want Sam
to ever blow away, but you know what? He will. His ashes will stick to the
fingers of someone who loves him. Maybe his ashes will blow that
person into a place where things do not come out right, where things cannot
be boxed up or spackled back together, but where somehow we can see with
whatever joy we can muster the four or five leaves on the formerly barren

"Mom?" he called out suddenly in his sleep.

"What?" I whispered, "here I am," and he slung his arm towards the
sound, out across my shoulders.

By Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

MORE FROM Anne Lamott

Related Topics ------------------------------------------