Ash Wednesday was last week, and it left me with a dilemma.
I must first backtrack a bit. When I was young and immature—the post-college early 20s, when you’re supposed to be an adult but are nowhere near such a thing—I also had an Ash Wednesday dilemma. There was a church near my job at the time, and I attended a service during lunch. However, I spent the entire service not reflecting on the Lenten season or my faith, but wondering whether or not I would keep the ashes on my forehead when I returned to work.
Again, the struggle then was sheer vanity and immaturity, although I’m proud to say I did keep the ashes on my forehead, a decision that became a milestone on my treacherous path to a moderately mature adulthood.
As the years have gone by, I have managed to remain steadfast in keeping the ashes on my forehead for the remainder of the day. I mean, Christ died for our sins, so it’s the least I can do, right? I still attend a lunchtime service and come back to work as I left church, even if the priest has pressed his thumb on my head as hard as humanly possible and has failed to mark anything resembling a cross, with the excess ashes cascading down to my nose and mouth.
For the uninitiated, this is how the process goes:
Priest: Don’t forget you are going to die someday. (presses huge anonymous blob on your forehead)
But back to my dilemma. Our daughters’ school was having a big parents meeting last Wednesday night, and I was going to be the parent attending on behalf of our family. So … do I still keep the ashes?
My struggle had layers. For starters, not everyone around here is Catholic, and many people simply don’t know about Ash Wednesday. For example, a couple of years ago when I returned to work here ashed up, my coworker legitimately did not know what had happened to my forehead and felt bad asking, something I discovered thanks to a conversation during which she made eye contact with only my forehead and the floor.
Back east? Everyone is either Catholic or Jewish—literally—and there is a mutual understanding and respect for ashes and, on a more consistent basis, yarmulkes. In these parts everyone attends churches called something like, Church of the Divinity of Our Lord and Savior of the West Valley, instead of, you know, St. Anne’s, and Ash Wednesday services, if they even exist, provide just another occasion to sing a lot, or whatever it is non-Catholics do.
Furthermore, even if some parents did understand why there was a giant blotch in the middle of my forehead, isn’t there a point where it’s like, okay, we get it. You went to an Ash Wednesday service. Congrats. No get over yourself and wash your face. In other words, would it be, if not actually obnoxious, perceived as obnoxious?
On the other hand, what kind of person would I be to wash them off? I’m already the dad of “the girl who hits” and “the girl who eats food that fell on the floor,” so I might as well be the dad with the dirty forehead. I WILL HONOR THE MARTYRS.
Making matters more complicated was that my suspicions about people’s unfamiliarity with Ash Wednesday around here were confirmed throughout the day. That afternoon, someone who frequents our office came by, poked his head into my office and said, “Howdy there—whoa, what happened to your head?” When I gently informed him it was Ash Wednesday, he expressed relief, saying, “Oh good. I thought you got in a bike accident or something,” and as he said this he dramatically reenacted this nonexistent bike accident, pretending to bang his head head on the door casing. (I know I joke and exaggerate a lot, but this wonderful leap into bike crash assumptions—with reenactments—was something that really happened.)
Later I went to pick up my tax paperwork. When the woman came out to greet me, on the heels of the recently endured bike accident scenario, I preempted any confusion by saying, “Please excuse the ashes on my forehead, but it’s Ash Wednesday.” She laughed, initially thinking I was making a joke of some sort, and after a brief reflection, said, “Wait … what’s that?” (Again, really happened.)
As you can see, it was quite the struggle for me to decide whether to keep the ashes for the school meeting. But I think I made the right call. I skipped the school meeting, went to a burrito place drive-thru while wearing a hat pulled low, and ate in my car.
I am kidding. I washed the ashes off before the meeting.
Remember—I said moderately mature adulthood.
Note: This column appears in the 3/13 issue of The Glendale Star and the 3/14 issue of the Peoria Times.