Feb 15, 2013

Ash to go

That most of my human-nature related insights and epiphanies should occur at the commuter rail station is not surprising. Other than the 5 minute walk from North Station to my office , on the Boston end of my train ride, this is after all the only time I get a daily glimpse of other slices of humanity. Or at least the slice that goes to work in Boston. Once there, we're all usually hunched up against the wind tunnel effect, scurrying with heads down to our separate workplaces, suspended within those little bubbles that large(ish) cities so easily and instantly conjure.

This particular February Wednesday I met these folks on the platform in Waltham:

The Catholic observance of 'Ash Wednesday' is as intrinsic to the socio-cultural fabric of the Greater Boston area as the Pilgrim hat icons (on everything from Highway signage to tourist kitsch) that boast of the Mayflower's historic arrival. Irish immigrants followed the Mayflower Puritans a few hundred years later and brought with them Catholicism. Driven by Ireland's devastating Potato famine of 1847, the Diaspora arrived and grew not only in size but in a unique sort of eminence. Boston Irish Catholics came to own a spirit of industry, inquiry and even government here. Three guesses as to President John Fitzgerald Kennedy's ethnic heritage. That's not to say that all Catholics here have Irish ancestry (the so called 'Boston Brahmins' are apparently descended from the Puritan founders) but many, many do. And I think of them whenever I think of Catholicism.

Ancestry (and quick trip to wiki grade Irish history!) aside, a forehead anointed with a smear of ash on any given Lent Wednesday here speaks not just of early morning Mass and Faith but generations of tradition in a long thriving community. It's easy to smile when these suddenly-identifiable Christians (I've come to think of them, not unkindly, as 'Wednesday Catholics') board the train preceded/followed by a dark haired Indian wearing a similar vibhuti teeka from their morning puja. I find it heartening somehow that outward symbols of two disparate religions should find not just such similar expression but full acceptance. I haven’t seen anyone spare a second glance at any ash-dotted forehead, regardless of it's underlying skin-tone.
Quick aside (again!): Not having ever faced racism in this country, I wonder at (and am mildly ashamed of) my surprise. Notch it upto skepticism. I often wonder if I haven't faced the racism that many of my peers have caught glimpses of, due to my low exposure to ALL of American society. I figure that attending Graduate school and pursuing a career in a field requiring a certain degree of education ensures I only come across people of a cosmopolitan bent, people used to the sight and sound of non-Americans because of the way we have saturated institutes of higher education and highly-skilled jobs in addition to the 7-eleven 'appu's widely caricatured in American pop-culture. Regardless of my confusion, what I've seen of the American spirit (if I can even summarize the plurality here into 'one' spirit), I like.

Which brings me full circle to the Episcopalians in the cold and slush, clutching their packs of ash to share with anyone who hasn't found time for it yet. For fear of gawking and/or intruding on what seemed a somewhat private act (though arguably, wearing an ash mark all day was probably not geared toward keeping the faith 'private'), I didn't stick around to stare down the actual 'to-go' ritual they performed. But their effort at bringing some peace and comfort to harried Catholics who might have struggled and lost their bid at religious observance, possibly from the due pressures of Life, was touching. They did not seem to be proselytizing and were open-minded enough to let me take this picture.

As a long professed Agnostic (and recently converted Atheist) I make no claim to understanding the joy people find in Faith. I come from a country ripped apart by religion and am aghast at the atrocities carried out in the name of 'tradition', leave alone Faith. I'll never agree that unthinking adherence to unchallenged rituals is a virtue. Especially when said rituals divide people and spread pain and intolerance. I find though that I've remained human enough to recognize the power of positive traditions in transforming lives in small, but significant ways. My intolerance of dogma doesn't prevent me right now either, from seeing the substantive example of brotherhood and compassion in a couple of church-goers offering up comfort and convenience instead of doling out guilt and defaulting to indifference.
They didn’t try to proselytize.
They didn't even call out to passers-by.
They just stood there - cassock edges (vestments? robes? my Christian lexicon is woefully under furnished!) wicking up melted grey slush from the asphalt. They smiled and nodded at anyone who made eye-contact and let their board advertise their purpose.
I wish I had thanked them for what they brought to their fellow Catholics.
And me.
My forehead is bare of any signs of Faith. But theirs did something for me anyway.

One evening a few months ago we were on our way to a birthday party. At the first chant of "I'm bored!" on the long, dark drive, his Dimmum (my mom) challenges him to count to 100.
Then to 200.
At 131 (or so), Oyon pauses and wonders out loud what comes after 1000.
I ask him to guess.
"Thousandty-one. Thousandty- two...."

Anyone who's shocked that an almost 6 yr old can't count past 1000: he can't do buttons either. But boy, does he have a great grin. :-)


  1. While I'm against most rituals, be it ash or a religious string, I think its amazing that these people are there for those who care.

    Lovely post. I enjoy posts on small observations. It's what makes life interesting.

    1. Hey MM:
      Agreed. Life seems to be truly lived in the small observations that percolate through this messy and distracted business of Living. We leave adolescence behind and decide that mouthing off about epiphanies and deep thoughts sounds juvenile. We replace sharing our honest thoughts with ascerbic wit and cynicism that seem more fitting indicators of our worldliness and maturity. Or at least that's the path me and many of my freinds seem to have inadvertently followed. And full circle now. I worry that these days I'm going off the deep end of gratitude and gushing about inanities to the point where its self-defeating. But then I wonder "what else I could be doing with my thoughts and time?". Complaining more? Sounding smart-n-sassy while pointlessly underlining commonly held notions? I'd like to stir things up like you do but since you do it so well, I'll remain in my current comfort zone of drawing attention to the small things that are'nt really that small. Thx for commenting. :-)