It’s Going to be Okay: Thoughts on Ash Wednesday and Everything Else

It is the night before I leave for Nashville, and I am gathering things together in our bedroom—clothes and chargers and a book or two. My 10-year-old son calls from the next room. He recently recovered from a bout with both strep and the flu.

“Dad?” he asks, and I come into the room, lean over, kiss his cheek.


“What time are you leaving in the morning?”

“Early, before you wake up.”

“Will you come in and say good-bye before you go?”

* * * * *

Eight hours later, I step gingerly through the dark, lifting my feet over toys and blankets. I lean in over his bed and kiss his cheek.

“See ya, buddy.”

He rolls over.

* * * * *

It’s a two-hour drive to the Baltimore airport, or at least that’s how long it takes when I leave the house at 6:00 a.m. On the beltway, the brake lights glow red, and the sky begins to lighten as the morning comes. On my playlist, Ben Howard plays “Old Pine”:

Hot sand on toes, cold sand in sleeping bags
I’ve come to know that memories
Were the best things you ever had

I think of the kids waking up, getting ready for school, Maile making breakfast and getting everyone out the door. Home feels like a memory, soft and sweet and somehow off in the distance, like a humming sound I can’t quite tune into.

A fog settles over the beltway and the cars creep to a stop. When I get to the airport, the fog is heavier, and while I can’t see the planes coming in, I can hear them approach, like rolling thunder, like some strange apocalypse.

* * * * *

Above the clouds, the blue is the color of cotton candy and the sun glares in through the plastic window shades. I’m in a window seat—there is a guy across the aisle trying to clean up the Coke he spilled all over his tray, his pants, the floor. The guy beside me, in the middle seat, takes out a huge bag of Mexican food he must have bought in the airport and starts eating. In front of me, an old man takes his throw-up bag out of the seat pocket and fluffs it open.

I doze in and out. I write on my laptop. I go back to sleep. I wake up to the man across the aisle. He has just spilled another drink. He mutters to himself.

We begin our descent, and the plane bumps and shifts. We move inside the clouds. We could be on Venus, or under water, or lost. I close my eyes and whisper to myself, it will be fine, it will be fine. The plane plunges again, leaving my stomach behind. It drops again, and there is a whispered gasp through the plane.

It’s going to be okay.

* * * * *

I am in my hotel room in Nashville, and our newest podcast episode is only a few days old. My friend Beth Stedman shares her reaction to it:

And suddenly I’m standing in my kitchen with the Costco items I still need to put away, and the plate of hastily made nachos I’m shoveling in my mouth at the counter, and I’m trying to keep from sobbing.

Minutes before I had been laughing along to the podcast The Stories Between Us because I could relate so much. Then Maile said these words, “It makes me feel like something more is at stake. That something bigger and something badder wants us not to create.” It struck me, so I went back a few minutes and listened to those few seconds again. I started to shake. I hit the 30 second rewind button and listened a third time.

Like a summer storm that comes out of nowhere and just as suddenly stops, a single sob breaks out from my chest. I take the nachos out of the microwave and then another sob, like rolling thunder, with space in between, the sobs come and go.

I go back two minutes and listen a fourth time and then I’m crying.

This is the journey of the creative, isn’t it? Everything around us, every circumstance and rejection and person is telling us, directly or indirectly, that what we are doing is not a crucial, that it doesn’t really matter in the big scheme of things. And yet.

We know.

I read her comment again, sitting in my hotel room in Nashville.

I remember it is Ash Wednesday. I look up local service times.

* * * * *

The Episcopal church parking lot is cold and empty when I arrive, early, and the large oak doors are locked, so I keep walking around the building until I find a side door, and I walk through. It is the entry to the church office, and there is a secretary behind the desk who looks at me a little puzzled. But I smile and act like I know where I’m going, and I find the sanctuary.

I sit in a dark corner of the sanctuary and watch quietly as people come and go, lighting candles, preparing for the service. I am the first person there.

Ash Wednesday, and death is in the air. I think of my friends who lost their son. I think of my friend who recently discovered she has cancer. I think of my grandmother, gone only three months.

From dust you have been made, and to dust you shall return.

After the priest’s moving homily, we form a line that snakes through the pews, in and out of the light. We walk forward, one after the other, and at the front I am led to the left, to the priest who gave the talk. Her eyes are brimming with tears.

From dust you have been made, and to dust you shall return.

I close my eyes. Her fingers trace a gritty, oily black cross on my forehead, the ash of last year’s burned palm fronds.

It’s going to be okay, I think.

* * * * *

After communion—this is the body, this is the cup—I walk out into the cold Nashville night. I walk lonely, quiet city streets from the church to my hotel, and I can feel the cold air especially cool on the gritty cross still on my forehead. I pull the hood of my coat up over my head. I disappear in it, disappear in the city.

We are all marked, every one, though it’s an ashen cross we can’t usually see. We will not live forever. This seems crucial to remember, especially on that night, as I walk through the shadows and the light, as I make my way back to the hotel and, eventually, home.

It’s going to be okay.

Check out our newest podcast episode with Anne Bogel, creator of Modern Mrs. Darcy and the podcast, What Should I Read Next?

5 Replies to “It’s Going to be Okay: Thoughts on Ash Wednesday and Everything Else”

  1. I have found ash Wed. with it’s emphasis on “dust to dust” a reminder of my mortality to be difficult. By time time Feb/March comes around, I have experienced the birthday and/or deathday of my family members. It’s like I have lived “dust to dust” from August to Jan. I went to one ash Wed. service a number of years ago and it sent me to a dark place. I am all to aware of mortality. I may try again one year. for now, I realize I need to look for beauty and hope. So my blog post next week will be a repost of my 2012 post and weekly will post something of beauty and hope and truth.
    And yes, we will be OK. I will be OK even if things around me are so NOT OK. Lots of therapy to come to a place of speaking of hope again.
    I still have the card you sent me on my desk. I have meant to write to you and thank you. It came during a time when I could not write. I hardly journaled which is unheard of for me. The words and story I was living were not for public posting. That is changing.
    We get to Lancaster PA about once a year. My one writing dream I have allowed to simmer through all the quiet is coming to the writers’ retreat. If not this year, surely by the next.

Comments are closed.