Exodus and Ashes:
Reflections on Dust
by Gerry Hendershot
Lee Young Li was the "Poet of the Week" in the course I'm taking at Wesley Seminary (Poetry as Spiritual Practice). Li's father had been a personal physician to Mao Zedong, and was later a political refugee from Indonesia when people of Chinese ancestry were being persecuted there. The family eventually arrived in the U.S. when Lee Young Li was seven. He writes often about his relationship with his father and the immigrant experience.
In an interview with Bill Moyers, Li spoke about the resonance he feels with the biblical story of the Exodus: "That struggle for belief and faith in the face of humiliation, annihilation, apostasy--all of that seems to me really what I go through and what we all go through, finally (B. Moyers, The language of life, p. 259)." That is to say, perhaps, that a human life is itself an exodus, an exile, a wandering in search of . . . of what? Belief, faith, meaning . . . something.
Lee's poem "To Hold" begins:
"So we're dust. In the meantime, my wife and I
make the bed. Holding opposite edges of the sheet,
we raise it, billowing, then pull it tight,
measuring by eye as it falls into alignment
between us. We tug, fold, tuck. And if I'm lucky,
she'll remember a recent dream and tell me.
One day we'll lie down and not get up.
One day, all we guard will be surrendered.
Until then we'll go on learning to recognize
what we love . . ."
On Wednesday members my faith community, the Church of the Pilgrims, anointed one another's foreheads with oil and ashes saying, "From dust you came, and to dust you shall return." Earlier, they took ashes into the street, anointing willing passers-by with the same words, or as Lee says more simply, "So we're dust."
The image of making a bed in the face of death could imply denial or diversion, but for Li it's a holy pursuit: "we raise it," "it falls into alignment," and "if I'm lucky, she'll remember a recent dream and tell me." What resurrects us in life is sharing it with others in love, in the making of a bed, the sharing of a dream, or the anointing of a stranger.
We live under threat: "One day we'll lie down and not get up. / One day, all we guard will be surrendered." But, "Until then, we'll go on learning to recognize what we love." We don't know what we love; we must learn what we love. Recently I ended a telephone conversation with a friend suffering through health and other problems by saying, for the first time, "I love you." I didn't know, but I learned. We learn to love until we die.
The dust that reminds us of our origins and our destinations, our beginnings and our endings, it is just as surely a metaphor for the lives we live along the way, making beds and phoning friends. On a recent "On Being" radio show, Krista Tippet interviewed poet Marilyn Nelson, who read her poem, "Dusting," which ends,
For this infernal, endless chore,
for these eternal seeds of rain:
Thank you. For dust.
(Read the full poem here.)
When my wife died, we had her body cremated, as she had requested. I commissioned a potter-friend to make an urn glazed in my wife's favorite blue with a Japanese character in a lighter blue--she was a Japanophile. When I had selected the glazes and the shape, the potter, who had never made a funerary urn, asked, "What size?" The dust of my wife's life was reduced to ashes, whose volume must be learned. Thank you. For dust.