And Ashes

The reminders come.

We see Nicola, the son of one of Tizi’s cousins. He’s in the travel business. I ask him how things are, if work is picking up since Covid. He says, Yes, and now there is the war. Later, his sister’s husband, Tomaso, who is in the food business, when I ask how things are, says, Well, first there was Covid, now the war.

It’s over there. I read about the war every morning. But it’s over there.

Last night, thinking of my friends who live part time in Budapest, I opened a map on my computer. How far to Budapest? How far to Kiev? Not that far. To Budapest, 950 miles, Detroit to Omaha; to Kiev, 1200 miles, Detroit to Denver.

The woman who lived with Tizi’s 95-year-old aunt up the street, the last surviving member of that generation whom we lost just a year ago, was from Ukraine. War with the separatists had been going on. Her husband, she said, fought against them, came home having lost a third of his weight. Once or twice a year, Lena loaded food and goods onto a bus that would go from San Marino to Ukraine, stuff her family needed back there and could not get. At one time, she said, the shelves in the markets had been full. No more.

I’ve been starting a collection of wall art. You turn a corner, and there’s a face on the wall. I take a pictures. Two pieces a few days ago in Rimini. Today in the Piazza del Popolo in Pesaro, a reminder: on the side of the post office, a political face, Patrick Zaki, a Coptic Egyptian postgraduate student at the University in Bologna, in the women’s rights program, was taken into custody in Cairo and hasn’t been seen since. I take my photo and we continue on–to lunch.

I also take pictures of lunch.

Today is Ash Wednesday. Every week I read a New York Times column by Tish Harrison Warren. She is an Anglican priest and writer-in-residence at Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh. Since Covid I have not gone to church. Since doubt has established deep roots in me, I haven’t felt inclined or felt a spiritual vibe in the liturgy. Harrison helps me think.

She writes, “We arrange our lives to avoid thinking about death.”

Tizi’s dad said one time, “When I was a kid, it seemed like every week the procession went up this street, to the cemetery, to bury a kid.” Today I walk that street, past a coffee bar, past the church, to a little grocery store in our town. Next to our apartment building is a middle school. Many mornings buses park out front, to take the kids on field trips. Later we get in our car and drive to the hills or the sea, and then have lunch.

In Kiev and other cities in Ukraine, women and children and the aged are being bussed to safety. Where’s that?

Yesterday a friend on Facebook shared a photo of six-wheeled Perseverance, the heaviest rover to touch down on Mars. The photo is referred to as “a Navcam mosaic.” Next week we’ll stop at the duomo in Pesaro to see the Roman mosaics, part of the old church floor.

“Are you going to get ashes?” I ask Tizi.

“Maybe not,” she says. “I don’t need the reminder.”

One year we were in Venice on Ash Wednesday. We went to the church of St. Mark’s for ashes. I thought, This will be a big deal. These ashes will be the real thing. When we approached the priest, he dumped a little spoonful of them on top of my head. Hey, I thought, what about the cross? I wanted the smudge. I walked out scratching my head.

Harrison recalls Karl Marx, his remark that religion is the opiate of the masses. She writes, “Faith can have a numbing effect, quelling hard questions and hampering the work of justice in the here and now. [Marx] has a point. Religion has at times been used as an excuse by some to not work for change and to embrace a pie-in-the-sky quietism.”

The ashes are a reminder–we will be ashes, we will be dust. Harrison adds, “The church has long said that facing death, without denial or distraction, is a necessary part of living truthfully. And this truth, like all truth, teaches us how to live.”

Today ashes will be a reminder of what awaits us, and maybe I can attempt to live truthfully. They will also serve as a reminder of what’s happening 1200 miles away. They will be ashes of solidarity. In 2000 years we have learned a lot–a mosaic of a rover on Mars, the work of geniuses–but not how to live together. We lack peace geniuses.

Before lunch we’ll find a church and get the smudge, at least I will, and look upon others with the mark on their foreheads and remember devastation, suffering, and death next door.

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