Ash Wednesday: Muscles to Mush
Gordon C. Stewart. MPR commentary. Feb. 17, 2010. (The family had vacationed in the jungle of Costa Rica at step-daughter Katherine’s request after a diagnosis of terminal cancer.)
Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. It’s an Ash Wednesday kind of week. It puts me in mind of another Ash Wednesday, two years ago:
“You want to go down to the waterfall? Come on – I’ll show you a shortcut!” The invitation comes from Ryan somebody-or-other, who lives next to Las Aguas, our home deep in the jungle ofCosta Rica. We’re having fun now. We’re on vacation! At 65, shortcuts sound good.
Ryan leads the way to a steep and narrow jungle trail. “Hang onto the rope with your left hand. The railing on your right is only there in case you lose your balance.” The blue rope is thin and slack. The railing is two inch round bamboo. Ryan – in his mid-30s and fit as a fiddle – leads the way down the steep ravine, followed by Chris, Kay and Katherine. I bring up the rear. I tell myself that I’m last because this way I get to protect Katherine in case she falls or needs me. Everyone else knows that I’m last in line because I’m like an old tortoise trying to climb down stairs.
The “shortcut” — this great adventure we’re all enjoying — is steep, 60 degrees or so. My legs, whose only regular exercise is climbing the stairs in our house or the one step up into the chancel on Sunday mornings, are turning to jelly. By the time we climb down 75 jungle steps, Katherine, whose fingers are either numb or painful these days because of her chemo, declares something uncharacteristic of her: “I don’t think I can do this.” I don’t think I can either.
Dust to dust, ashes to ashes, muscles to mush.
I’m thinking that we’re going to have to go back up this trail. I’m thinking that we should turn around now while we can. I’m thinking about Katherine’s hands, her cancer, her exhaustion, and how badly she wants to do everything that has brought us here, to this trail. “It’s not far,” Ryan assures us. But like George Bush, Ryan is from Texas. “Sure!” I mutter to myself. “Sure it’s just a little farther. Even if it was a mistake, we have to stay the course.” There’s no turning back now. I wonder if everyone fromTexas stretches the truth.
Sure enough, it turns out we are only halfway there. But we trust Ryan and keep climbing down to the falls, Katherine ahead of me, the helper tortoise, sliding and slipping downward and sideways, leaving several cracked bamboo railings as a reminder that I’d been there.
At the falls Ryan and Chris, both as agile as the Costa Rican howler monkeys that swing in the trees, scale the falls to perch on a ledge with the waterfall cascading over their bodies. “Just one little slip of the foot from death” is what I’m thinking, trying to remember when my body was well-toned. Kay takes her camera and has a field day. Katherine and I hang out, breathe, and agree that it’s beautiful — and that it would be a lot more beautiful if someone sent a helicopter or just beamed us up.
The way back to Las Aguas is easier, perhaps because it isn’t a shortcut. This other trail takes no more time than the shortcut, and it’s much easier on the thighs, the hands and the brain.
I conclude that shortcuts aren’t all they’re cracked up to be – like stimulating the economy by depleting the national bank account. Like giving ourselves quick fix tax rebates so we can spend the receipts and leave the long-term debt for our grandchildren.
By the time we get home, our legs have turned to mush. It reminds me of Ash Wednesday, when the sign of the cross is made on one’s forehead with ashes. Dust to dust. Ashes to ashes. Muscle to mush. For us Christians, there is no shortcut through this season, no Easter without Lent.
In the hours following our return to Las Aguas, Kay assures me that some soreness is a good thing. I’m tired, woefully out of shape, sore, and a likely candidate for a heart attack, which, as Kay reminds me, means … I’m not dead. While the dust and ashes that I am still have some muscle left, the soreness reminds me that I’m alive.
Someday everything that I now claim to be my self will turn to mush. The pain will go away. On the jungle floor below the falls, the waterfall will wash over us and carry what’s left downriver to wherever the river goes. Then there’ll be no shortcuts and no illusions of time. Just the long river into eternity.