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Ashes, Dust and Water: a meditation grounded in Margaret Avison’s “Rising Dust”

This week  some Christian traditions practice Ash Wednesday.  Participants in an Ash Wednesday service receive on their foreheads a thumbprint of ashes as they hear this reminder:  “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.”

Cheery thought?!  It may be: that we are made of humus, of the stuff of the earth, that we are limited, gifted with a few years, fragile, ornery, dusty. Maybe this season can speak to and be brought into dialogue with the forces that swirl in our current way of being public. “Dust you are and to dust you shall return”: imagine the politically and financially powerful on this good earth framing their rising within this mantra.

The frailty and tentative qualities that Ash Wednesday evokes might offer some relief in the constructed urgencies of a public life that demands a “brand,” in the trigger-happy political atmosphere of tweets and short attention spans.   There is that seemingly paramount pressure in the marketplace, of trying to catch another’s attention, of creating sway in the ebb and flow of manufacturing public opinion.   In this vortex where time is measured less by seasons and more by ticking clocks, where pace is measured less by the sun slowly warming the earth and more by being on some cutting edge, poets and others who go by a slower language may feel speechless or tongue-tied.

Ash Wednesday brings to mind not only another pace, but a way to translate dust and ashes.  Reaching for a remote can subtly take the place of face-to-face conversations . “Remote,” and, “reaching for the remote” – these terms for that way of being is telling.  Ashes could become associated with drones and those who sit in dark rooms with their remotes in their hands, watching the screen that tells them about the movements of the people they are targeting, waiting for the moment when the drone that they are controlling can make its hit.  Who is the audience being remotely targeted?  The “audience” is hidden from the auditor: both are “virtual,” untouchable, ghosty, physically out of touch and time-wise, out of joint, as Jacques Derrida’s sharp commentary of Hamlet suggests. These conditions seem to graphically describe the ashes and the dust, how our little lives can fall apart, how remoteness escalates conflict, how nations fail those many who remain hidden.

Faced with a world I cannot make sense of, where face-to-face encounters break down and dissolve, I need language that has the power to uncover a deeper reality.

Margaret Avison’s “Rising Dust” speaks deliberately: takes the image of humans-as-dust and reframes it. Turns out, we are composed of mostly water.  It is the power of such language that fires me up and that calls me, over and over, into a current that gives life.

The thumbprint of ashes on my forehead, I turn to speech that counters speechlessness, thirsty for words that call the world into being.  Parched for the speech that calls and recalls us, I am grateful for the claim we are “rising dust,” that suggests, in fact, that we are “though leaky firm.”

This language claims we are composed, and assumes the presence of a composer.  This story is about a reality “the learned few / do not explain,” and is there a tone of relief in that, that “that’s life”?  In the world that this poem conjures up, there is the constant movement of water, the image of the “sky and earth [that] invisibly / breathe skyfuls of/ water.”  Beyond the disconnect of the remote, of the illusion of remote control, the very sky and the earth are in fact breathing.

With the daub of ash on my forehead I am reminded that we breathing beings are “kin to waterfalls [and] all that flows and surges….[and]  yet I go steadily.”  I am composed of substance, of some solid goodness.   Moreover and somehow, this includes a “vital bond,”  some energy that “thrums and shudders and twists,” that somehow connects all that lives and moves to the composer / weaver.  This bond is something that somehow “sounds” (“forever”?!) the heart, that is “almost limitless,” and that we dusty ones thirsting for water can never “quite make sense of it.”  But there it is, offering itself this Ash Wednesday.

Rising Dust

The physiologist says I am well over
half water.
I feel, look, solid; am
though leaky firm.
Yet I am composed
largely of water.
How the composer turned us out
this way, even the learned few do not
explain. That’s life….

Click here to read all of Margaret Avison’s poem

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