Dusty Endings

Though Easter was a huge deal in my family, we never did Ash Wednesday when I was growing up. No service, no imposition of ashes. And although my parents adored the Advent season (during which we had many family traditions, including daily lighting of our Advent wreath and daily chocolate ending from our Advent calendars), Lent was completely ignored. (We still had daily family devotions as we always did, lest you think we were complete spiritual slackers).  Naturally, we didn’t do Fat/Shrove Tuesday either—so no paczkis or pancakes or whatever celebratory foods people eat on such occasions. Between Christmas and Easter was simply the long stretch of winter.

As an adult, I’ve engaged more with the church calendar, but Ash Wednesday has even now never been something to which I’ve attended much. In fact, I usually only remember that the day has arrived after my forehead-besmudged students show up in class.

I have a feeling that it’s in part because (as I sometimes joke) I’m decidedly “anti-Maranatha.” By which I mean that, even as I acknowledge the deep brokenness of the world, I do love it still. I am so deeply grateful for my life. “This world is not my home” is not a hymn that ever captivated me. And in my 1970’s childhood when church talk would turn to the “late, great planet Earth,” it always made me profoundly uncomfortable. I have never been eager for rapture.

And it’s probably in part because a reminder of my inevitable dusty ending is not something I am keen to contemplate. When my mother died unexpectedly at 55 of a brain aneurysm, my family had to scramble to purchase a burial plot since my parents—being only middle aged—hadn’t gotten around to selecting one yet. It was a hard enough process given the suddenness of my mother’s death, but in some ways the real kicker was when the cemetery director asked my father if he’d like to buy a space for himself while he was purchasing one for my mother. A graveyard two-fer, if you will. I get that such is the business of funerals, but I remember thinking at the time, “Must we? Do I have to face both of my parents’ deaths at the very same moment?”

The answer, of course, is yes. With each passing year and the ever-increasing loss of relatives and friends, that “yes” grows only more insistent. To visit the grave and see inscribed both the name of my dead mother and of my living father is to have mortality made tangible—and undeniable.

But I wonder if Ash Wednesday might be more than a reminder of mortality, more than a lamenting of our sinfulness (though that alone would make it fully worthwhile). I wonder if it might be akin to the poem by Jane Kenyon, “Otherwise” (below). Here Kenyon, with her attention to the “luminous particular,” catalogues the wonders of the average day. But these wonders come into focus for her because of the “otherwisely” nature of life: that is, that it has an preordained end. That fact doesn’t make life less good—instead, it helps illuminates the goodness.

It seems to me that Ash Wednesday has the same relationship to Easter: the darkness of death that we remember today is what makes the light of Easter shine all the more brightly.


I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.
—Jane Kenyon

From Otherwise, 1996
Graywolf Press, St. Paul, Minn.
Copyright 1996 by the Estate of Jane Kenyon.
All rights reserved.

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.


  • Jennifer, I woke up this morning thinking about the routines of my retired life that I am grateful for–granola for breakfast, time to read and sometimes nap in the late afternoon, a glass of wine with my husband at 5 –but I didn’t connect it with Ash Wednesday. Thank you for this reminder and the wonderful poem.

  • Thank you, Jennifer. This resonated with me in so many ways.

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